CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jake Delhomme bobbled the snap, then somehow held onto the ball following a bizarre pump fake. Finally, he unleashed a risky and wobbly pass toward the end zone.
Delhomme magic returns
"We just watched the film, there was nobody open. Dante wasn't open. It was just a good throw and a good catch."
Confident, unorthodox and a bit lucky, it was classic Delhomme. And any thoughts he wouldn't be the same with a new ligament in his passing elbow were quickly squashed amid the celebration after Dante Rosario plucked Delhomme's high pass out of the air as time expired Sunday in San Diego.
As Delhomme serves as a test case for quarterbacks and reconstructive elbow surgery, the early results were positive -- and eerie. Delhomme's first game with his bionic elbow ended the same way his debut with Carolina did five years ago: with a winning touchdown pass that left his teammates joyous, and questioning how he did it.
"We just watched the film, there was nobody open," left tackle Jordan Gross said Monday. "Dante wasn't open. It was just a good throw and a good catch."
"We're always one game away, so just enjoy the heck out of it," said Delhomme, who hadn't played in a regular-season game since shredding the ligament in his elbow in Week 3 last season. "I put a lot on myself, don't get me wrong, but I embrace it more instead of (thinking) 'You can't let them down. You can't let them down.' I still have that, but you prepare and you go out and play, and hopefully it's good enough."
It was on Sunday, when Delhomme turned what was an ordinary day into a spectacular finish, rivaling his debut with Carolina in 2003. Then, the former New Orleans backup threw a 12-yard TD pass to Ricky Proehl with 16 seconds left that jump-started Carolina's run to the Super Bowl.
After the Chargers quickly parlayed D.J. Hackett's fumble into a touchdown and took a 24-19 lead, the Panthers took over at their 32 with 2:21 left. Having not scored an offensive touchdown all day and with top receiver Steve Smith back home serving a two-game suspension, the Panthers appeared doomed.
But Gross remembered Delhomme's previous comebacks.
"We went onto the field and I told him, 'This is what you do,"' Gross said. "He's awesome in the 2-minute (offense). He's got confidence. He knows what he's doing and I don't think he ever doubted it."
Delhomme, who had been a pedestrian 15-of-30 for 179 yards, suddenly started firing bullets. Hackett, Muhsin Muhammad, Rosario and Dwayne Jarrett all caught passes. After a short pass to Muhammad, the Panthers called their final timeout with 2 seconds left.
With the ball at the San Diego 14, the Panthers called a simplistic play run often in the back yard: five receivers run vertical routes to the end zone and try to get open.
Working out of the shotgun, Delhomme had trouble with a high snap. He gathered it and got good protection, but the Chargers had sent seven players into coverage and they swarmed Carolina's five receivers.
Delhomme eyed Rosario, a backup tight end, in the middle of the end zone. He made an awkward pump fake in hopes of getting a safety to bite. After bringing the ball back, Delhomme fired a high pass, far from a spiral, to the 6-foot-4 Rosario. The ball was tipped by Chargers linebacker Matt Wilhelm, and Rosario extended his arms and caught it with the nose pointing to the sky.
Panthers win, right? After experiencing so many heartbreaking losses in the last two non-playoff seasons, Gross wasn't sure.
"Flag, out of bounds, or something," Gross said. "Because it's too good to be true."
The officials signaled touchdown. Again, Delhomme was just good enough -- and lucky enough -- when it counted most, completing 8 of 11 passes for 68 yards on the final drive. Muhammad later ran up and kissed Delhomme on the cheek as he was doing a postgame interview.
On Monday, coach John Fox recalled going through three replacement QBs during a woeful 7-9 season without Delhomme in 2007.
"I don't care what kind of football team you are, when you lose that guy, it's different," Fox said.
And after a grueling rehabilitation that began in February when he was tossing a Nerf ball no more than 10 yards, Delhomme was savoring every minute of being back in the NFL -- and making the Panthers relevant again.
"I did miss it," Delhomme said. "I really did."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press