By MIKE CRANSTON
AP Sports Writer
Jake Delhomme stopped in front of a group of reporters, helmet at his side, panting.
Minutes after running five gassers Thursday to wrap up three weeks of optional workouts, the Carolina Panthers quarterback was exhausted — and happy.
“Without a doubt, this is by far the best summer camp we’ve ever had,” said Delhomme as sweat dripped from his brow. “The energy, the enthusiasm, the things we’re doing, and it’s not just me trying to give it window dressing. Players are saying it. Players feel it.”
The 2006 season still eats at Delhomme and the Panthers. The trendy pick in the preseason to reach the Super Bowl, they stumbled to 8-8 and missed the playoffs. Mistake-prone, Delhomme received the most criticism since he became the starter in 2003 and led Carolina to the Super Bowl.
“If you’re a prideful person, and you play the way we did last year, you should be ashamed,” Delhomme said. “If you have a big ego like everybody on this team does — and rightfully so, you just have to harness it — the ego should have been crushed after last year.”
It’s why Delhomme believes players worked so hard during the optional workouts. Everybody, except for Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, attended.
“The three weeks we had here is crucial for the offense and the defense to get to know each other better,” defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu said.
It was a busy time. New offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson installed his new system. The top two draft picks — linebacker Jon Beason and receiver Dwayne Jarrett — got acclimated to their new teammates. Linebacker Dan Morgan continued his comeback from multiple concussions.
The Panthers also spent time bonding off the field. They rode in stock cars and played paintball. Delhomme was one of five players who visited owner Jerry Richardson’s lake house.
Richardson zipped around the practice field in a golf cart Thursday, adding to the sense of determination — and urgency — around the team.
“Everybody was disappointed about last season,” coach John Fox said. “Our fans, but nobody was more disappointed than the players and coaches. We came back from this offseason with a vengeance.”
It was apparent late in the final workout, when players did a series of sprints across the field. In years past they’ve done four gassers, but this time they did five. And everybody participated, from stars like receiver Steve Smith and defensive end Julius Peppers to the undrafted rookies.
Delhomme struggled his way through the last gasser, with last year still stuck in his head.
“We were 8-8, but it felt so much worse that that,” Delhomme said. “You go back and look at it and it should have been so much better than that. We left some games on the table. A lot of us had a lot to do with it, myself included. I’m looking forward to righting the ship this year.”
But there are still many questions as the Panthers rest before reporting to training camp July 27.
Jenkins, who was put on the trading block before the draft, wants a new contract and it’s unknown if he’ll report to camp.
Tackle Travelle Wharton and defensive end Mike Rucker are still working their way back from knee injuries, and Davidson’s new offense has to find a way to get Smith the ball more.
Morgan’s history of concussions is a concern and could force Beason into a starting role right away.
Also, the team would like to sign tackle Jordan Gross, who is entering the final year of his contact, to a new deal before training camp.
After Thursday’s workout, players were quick to scatter. Some will go on vacations with their families. Kemoeatu, who struggled to finish the sprints, vowed to “go on a diet.”
They’ll return in six weeks ready to erase memories of last season.
“Last year, things did not go our way. I know we keep saying that, but it just didn’t happen,” Delhomme said. “We have some injured guys back. We have a new system put in place offensively. We’ve got a new coach on the defensive side and a couple of new coaches on the offensive side.
“The energy was up and it was good.”