Special to the Sun Herald
No NFL quarterback has played better this season than MVP-in-wait Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers.
Arguably, he is worth every penny of his six-year, $118.5 million contract. At 6-feet-5, 245 pounds, he does things that defy logic.
He is the only player in the modern era to win a national championship, the Heisman Trophy and become the first overall pick in the NFL draft within a one-year span.
And yet all the fame and fortune can't buy what former Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme possesses.
It has been 12 years since the Panthers won the franchise's lone NFC championship and played in their one and only Super Bowl (XXXVIII, Feb. 2, 2004, Houston).
And they achieved those honors with Delhomme under center.
Jake Christopher Delhomme, the pride of Breaux Bridge, La., and a Cajun through and through; an undrafted quarterback who began his professional career as a practice squad player for the New Orleans Saints and also plied his trade out of necessity n NFL Europe. At the height of his NFL career, he earned a base salary of approximately $7.5 million a year, relative peanuts for a starting quarterback who had just led his team to a Super Bowl.
Yes, Newton will be there Sunday when the Panthers host the Arizona Cardinals for the NFC Championship at Bank of America Stadium in downtown Charlotte, N.C.
But Delhomme, now 41, has been there and done that twice before. On Jan. 22, 2006, Delhomme and the Panthers lost at Seattle in the NFC title game, 34-14.
And while much water has flowed under the bridge since his playing days in Carolina, the passage of time has done little to change his undying loyalty and affection for Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, the franchise, former teammates and the 16-1 team favored to beat the Cardinals and advance to Super Bowl 50.
"I was an honorary captain at the Seattle game,'' Delhomme said of the Panthers' 31-24 win against the Seahawks in the divisional round. "The stadium was electric. I'm still close with the owner and many of the people in the organization; the structure is still in place. It's still the same family-type atmosphere that Mr. Richardson believes in.
"It's a close-knit team; very mature. They truly care for one another and have a burning desire to do whatever it takes to win. I'm told by people I trust and respect that they come in early and they stay late. They want to be good. It sounds like our '03 team the year we went to the Super Bowl.''
In the 2003 season, the Panthers reached Super Bowl XXXVIII by beating the Dallas Cowboys, St. Louis Rams and Philadelphia Eagles before losing 32-29 to the New England Patriots on an Adam Vinatieri 41-yard field goal with four seconds remaining.
And now 12 years later, a possible Patriots-Panthers rematch is taking shape, provided, of course, Carolina beats Arizona and New England defeats Denver and quarterback Peyton Manning at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
In the AFC title game, Delhomme's brain says New England but his gut says Denver because Manning will play pressure free. Two things worth noting: Brady is 2-6 at Mile High, with both wins coming at the expense of pedestrian quarterbacks Danny Kanell and Tim Tebow. Also, this season Brady has more touchdown passes at Mile High than Manning -- 3 to 1.
In the NFC title game,Delhomme is confident Carolina will move on after looking in the window to Newton's soul.
"I like to watch a quarterback's eyes when they play,'' Delhomme said. "They tell you the whole story. Cam's eyes say, 'I'm under control. I see what they're doing. This is where I'm going with the ball. No rush; I'm doing this. The play clock is running down; not a problem. I'm going to get the play off.'
"There's this maturity about him under center this year that I hadn't seen before. That's why I think the team has been elevated to a different level this season. Hands down, Cam is the MVP.''
Brian Allee-Walsh, a long-time Saints reporter based in New Orleans, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.