CHARLOTTE -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme likes his chances to come back next year, as much as he likes his team's.
Things are bad on the field without him, but in his first interview since season-ending elbow surgery, he said he's confident the current core, with coach John Fox, can turn things around next season.
Delhomme was upbeat when talking about his throwing arm, on which he had "Tommy John" surgery Oct. 18 to rebuild the ulnar collateral ligament. Team orthopedist Dr. Pat Connor removed part of Delhomme's hamstring to rebuild the tendon that holds the elbow together, and Delhomme's been doing range-of-motion exercises daily, along with his regimen of treatment that extends to game days when he travels with the team.
"I feel great; I won't tell you anything different than that," Delhomme said Wednesday. "I'm at 100 percent motion, flexion and extension. We can start actually doing some light weights tomorrow. I feel real good. I don't think you'd expect anyone to tell you any different, but I really do.
"Maybe I'm too optimistic, but that's just my nature."
While the surgery he's had means longer rehabs for most pitchers who need it (12-18 months), Delhomme said he's still focusing on being ready for the start of training camp next summer. He said he'd start throwing something -- probably a Nerf ball -- in about three months, but knows he can't rush. He said kicker John Kasay told him to focus on maintaining his range of motion early, as he did after knee injuries in 2000 and 2002.
"I won't throw until mid-to-late February -- that's a long time, I won't rush," Delhomme said. "Dr. Connor told me that from the beginning, 'Hey, from week eight to week 16 you are going to twiddle your thumbs.' But you know what, that is part of it. I will not go try to throw a ball in the backyard. That makes absolutely no sense.
"Everybody thinks you get smarter as you get older, maybe you just learn a little bit from being dumb when you're young. I'm going to take my time, and when it's time to make another progression we'll go forward."
What hasn't progressed has been the Panthers' offense without him.
There are many other factors, but his injury started the snowball rolling downhill on a season gone wrong.
Without a trusted passing game, teams are loading up on the run, which eventually forces the defense to try to stand too long, such as last week's game against New Orleans when the Saints held the ball nearly 40 minutes.
But it all comes back to the inept offense. They're 27th in the league in scoring at 15.7 points per game. Throw out the three games Delhomme played in (when they got 75 of their 173 points), and the Panthers are averaging 12.3 per game without him, a figure which would be last in the league.
Wide receiver Steve Smith just shook his head when asked about Delhomme, saying, "I miss him."
But when asked if it was fair to make long-term judgments on the team or the offense without him, Smith shrugged.
"We don't really have a choice, whether it's fair or not," Smith said. "One of the things I've expressed to Jake, sometimes you take for granted the guys you have when they're gone. You see how missed they are and how much they contribute to everybody's success.
"Is it fair? No, it's not and yes, it is."
With the offense's struggles, the team has sunk along with them, dropping five straight games and killing a season of promise. That has many wondering about the direction of the club, particularly the jobs of Fox and general manager Marty Hurney.
But Delhomme said he can tell Fox hasn't stopped coaching the same way he has since arriving. Delhomme said the Panthers caught his eye when he was with New Orleans in 2002, and the same qualities are evident.
"I think John has made it perfectly clear he's not going to stop coaching," Delhomme said. "Before I even got here, they started out 3-0 and lost eight in a row and then won four of the last five with nothing to play for. I was on a New Orleans team that started 6-2 and we couldn't win a game to get in the playoffs. So to me, they came and beat us and that always stuck in my mind -- a team that had nothing to play for beat us.
"This guy kept them together. And it wasn't good times. That eight-game stretch was rough. And right now we're going through a rough stretch, but it's nothing one win won't cure."
When asked if he'd be disappointed if Fox didn't get that chance, Delhomme's answer was swift.
"Oh, absolutely," the quarterback said. "I don't think anybody in this room would say otherwise. I think John has a proven record and he's done OK here. Certainly I know what John can do and I believe in him 100 percent."
Either way, the Panthers will have a different look next year, with seven starters slated to be unrestricted free agents, some retirements possible and more cuts on the way.
"I'm not a GM, but I mean, that's the NFL," Delhomme said. "But to me you look at the big picture. I look at Green Bay. That was a 4-8 team last year and they won their last four games and they don't have too many different guys this year than last year.
"You've got to go through tough times and we're going through one."
That's what bothers him, since all he has to fill what he called his "competition void" were arguments in the training room with fellow injured players Brett Basanez and Terrence Melton.
'My big thing is I wish I could be out there with my guys," Delhomme said. "That is what hurts more than anything because these are my guys. I mean it. I hope they say the same about me. I want to be out there to help them and it's hard when you're not.
"I try to be as rah-rah and as fired up as I can. I get emotional during a game. I want us to do some good things."