HOUSTON — At the beginning, Carolina Panther quarterback Jake Delhomme was fighting nerves. At the end, he was fighting tears.
At the beginning Delhomme seemed as skittish as a blindfolded colt in a barn on fire. At the end, he was in command of the biggest stage in sports.
For a quarter, Delhomme couldn't find an open receiver, couldn't avoid a rushing New England defender, couldn't feel the movement of his line, couldn't make his arm throw the football freely, couldn't make his heart beat slower than a hummingbird's, couldn't catch his breath or will a receiver to catch a pass.
That was when Delhomme was one for nine for one yard passing, when he had been sacked three times and when it seemed the Panthers wouldn't score until 2005 and might become the first team to have negative yardage in a Super Bowl game.
And then Delhomme took the Panthers on a 95-yard drive of creative thinking, gutsy play-calling and football-slinging bravado. It was when Delhomme found receiver Muhsin Muhammad for 23 yards, ageless Ricky Proehl for 15 yards and irrepressible Steve Smith for the 39-yard touchdown that seemed to free all the Panthers of their offensive sloppiness and mark the beginning of the ferocious competition that would mark the rest of Super Bowl XXXVIII.
"You were a tackle away from being MVP," someone told Delhomme an hour after New England had won its second Super Bowl in three years with a 32-29 victory over the Panthers.
There was a moment of silence as a puddle of tears gathered in Delhomme's eyes. "I don't feel like that at all," Delhomme said. "I feel like I want to keep playing because otherwise we're the losers. And what not."
"And what not."
That's the word crutch Carolina's devastated quarterback grabbed to keep his emotions from bursting out.
When Delhomme, the undrafted quarterback from Breaux Bridge, La., who was once a backup quarterback in Amsterdam of NFL Europe, overthrew receivers, underthrew them and refused to throw to them until he was being sacked, it was not nerves. Absolutely not nerves.
"It was maybe adrenaline and excitement. And what not," Delhomme said. "But I was never nervous."
And when his adrenaline slowed and his excitement became determination, it was not his flawless execution that led the Panthers to score on their last three possessions. "It was," Delhomme said, "my receivers finding clearance and our offensive game plan kicking in and our offensive line doing great. And what not."
After his horrendous start, Delhomme finished by going 16 for 33 for 323 yards and three touchdowns and no interceptions.
"If anything, Jake was just a little too pumped at the beginning," Muhammad said. "I think for all of us, the game was going a little too much in fast-forward. It seemed like everything was speeded up. Jake needed to get a feel for their defense and just hit a couple of passes. When we scored that first touchdown, you could tell. It was all going to come out."
In the fourth quarter, when every play could mean winning or losing, Delhomme led the Panthers on three touchdown drives. The first ended with the slippery 33-yard run by DeShaun Foster. Foster found freedom in large part because Delhomme had become as accurate as radar, completing three passes for 53 yards. It brought the Panthers from what seemed an insurmountable 21-10 deficit back into the game in a matter of two minutes.
The second drive had the spectacular finish of an 85-yard pass play from Delhomme to Muhammad, giving Carolina its first lead of the game, 22-21.
And the third drive tied the score, 29-29, with 1:08 left when Delhomme went five for six for 73 yards, including the 12-yard touchdown toss to Proehl.
"What Jake did during those last two minutes was the mark of a great quarterback," Proehl said. "It must have been fun watching it."
But the good part of the fourth quarter was forgotten in the matter of the 59 seconds it took the Patriots to get into game-winning field goal range.
"What I'll remember from this is how I wanted to keep playing," Delhomme said. "I was sure we'd play overtime. We'd win the coin toss and we'd score. And what not."
Those tears were threatening Delhomme's composure again. It was time to walk away. To go home. And what not.
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Picking Up the Pace
Jake Delhomme was approaching all-time marks for Super Bowl futility until he turned things around just before halftime:
*--* Game minutes Att Comp Yards TD First 27:57 9 1 1 0 Last 32:03 24 15 322 3