AFC vs. NFC PRO BOWL
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme and wide receiver Steve Smith go over a play during the NFC's Pro Bowl practice at the Ihilani Resort yesterday.
The Carolina QB is one of the NFC's backups to Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck
Take a look at what he's accomplished over the past three seasons and Jake Delhomme seems a natural fit on the NFC's Pro Bowl roster.
But consider where he began his NFL journey and his inclusion in the league's annual All-Star game is nothing short of remarkable.
AFC vs. NFC
Where: Aloha Stadium
Kickoff: 1 p.m. Hawaii time
Radio: KKEA 1420-AM
Tickets: Sold out
Delhomme's road to landing a job in the NFL -- from undrafted free agent, to NFL Europe prospect, to a backup buried on New Orleans' practice squad -- was paved in gravel.
But once he was handed the reins of the Carolina Panthers' offense in 2003, his outlook suddenly turned golden. And after helping the Panthers reach the Super Bowl two years ago and leading them to the NFC championship game this season, Delhomme now finds himself among the sport's elite.
"It's hard to put into words," Delhomme said of his first Pro Bowl selection. "When Coach (John) Fox announced to our team which players were going, I was pretty much floored. I was shocked and you just count your blessings.
"It wasn't anything that ever crossed my mind. I'm a firm believer that whatever happens, happens. You take care of things on the field, who knows what can happen. We're doing some good things in Carolina and when you win, you get noticed."
Delhomme and Atlanta's Michael Vick will back up NFC starter Matt Hasselbeck of Seattle in tomorrow's game at Aloha Stadium. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m.
After going undrafted coming out of Louisiana-Lafayette in 1997, Delhomme was waived three times and played just six games in his first five seasons in the league.
He got a fresh start in Carolina three years ago and orchestrated the Carolina offense well enough for the team to claim its first NFC title before losing to New England in a thrilling Super Bowl in January 2004.
Since then, he's gone from serving as caretaker of a run-oriented Carolina offense to forming one of the league's most productive pass-catch combinations with Panthers receiver and fellow Pro Bowler Steve Smith.
"He's come from the bottom up and you have to respect that," said Fox, who will lead the NFC tomorrow. "You just like to see guys have success who paid their dues.
"He's such a great kid, he's got great leadership ability, a great work ethic, so it's always gratifying for a coach to see a guy prosper like that."
In his third season as Carolina's starter, Delhomme completed 60 percent of his passes (262-for-435) for 3,421 yards and 24 touchdowns against 16 interceptions during the regular season, and the Panthers reached the NFC championship game for the second time in three years.
Delhomme's development as a passer helped Smith rack up a league-high 1,563 receiving yards and tie Indianapolis' Marvin Harrison with 12 touchdowns. That Smith would join Delhomme in this year's Pro Bowl is equally notable considering he sat out most of 2004 with a broken leg.
"My first year we were primarily a running team, and we kind of developed," Delhomme said. "Steve was young and I started to grow up a little bit and we've kind of evolved in the passing game.
"He's very quick, explosive, fast, strong and he's an unbelievable competitor. You combine those together and it makes him special."
After earning a wild-card berth into the playoffs, the Panthers shut out the New York Giants and Delhomme threw for 319 yards and three touchdowns, two to Smith, in a divisional playoff win over Chicago. But the Panthers stumbled one game short of a return to the Super Bowl as Delhomme tossed three interceptions in a 34-14 loss to Seattle.
Half a month removed from the season-ending defeat and a week deep into Pro Bowl festivities, the disappointment remains fresh for Delhomme.
"You're never over it," he said. "Tough losses are always hard to take. The Super Bowl still goes through my mind all the time, almost every day, and certainly the NFC title game, because you don't know if you can ever get back. It's hard enough to win one game in this league let alone a championship game."
The NFC championship game loss brought the Carolina staff to Honolulu along with the four Panthers picked to play in the game, which could translate into big-play opportunities for Delhomme and Smith tomorrow.
"Knowing the offensive coordinator will be a benefit for them," Fox promised.
It would be just another chance for Delhomme to seize an opportunity to shine.