CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -As a guy who started just two games over his first five NFL seasons before making it big, Jake Delhomme wasn't going to let the little matter of his elbow disintegrating end his career. He'd come too far.
Now, at the midway point of NFL 2008, the gritty Delhomme is as good as he's ever been. With a piece of his left hamstring holding his right elbow together, the 33-year-old Delhomme has the Carolina Panthers (6-2) off to their best start in team history. His performance is a good example of what's become an upside-down year for quarterbacks around the league.
In a season when Tom Brady blew out his knee, Brett Favre changed teams and Peyton Manning has struggled, the comfortable QB hierarchy has been thrown into flux.
Yet statistics reveal there's perhaps never been more effective quarterback play. According to STATS LLC, NFL passers midway through the season had a combined 61.7 completion percentage, the highest mark since passing statistics were tracked. Only 2.6 percent of passes were intercepted, an all-time low.
Delhomme, Kurt Warner and Kerry Collins are graybeards who have resurrected their careers. A couple of rookies, Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco, are leading winning teams.
With Brady out for the season and Favre and Manning far from spectacular, who are the top guys? Drew Brees or Philip Rivers? Or is it Warner? Tony Romo was playing well before he broke his pinkie, sending Dallas into a free fall. And don't forget about the Super Bowl MVP. Eli Manning is still pretty good - after a rough beginning to his career with the Giants.
There appears to be no good way to predict a QB's success - and the good times can also be fleeting. Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb was good, then struggled, and now is solid again.
``If there was a formula, people would be rich,'' Delhomme said. ``I think the biggest thing when I look at a quarterback, I don't care how tall he is. I don't care what his arm strength is. Can he move the chains and get you in the end zone? When you walk in that huddle, do those other eyes, do they look at you and do they believe?''
They certainly do in Carolina. Delhomme's injury last year left the Panthers paralyzed on offense - much like Seattle's plight this year with Matt Hasselbeck sidelined. Delhomme has returned after ligament-replacement surgery, and suddenly Carolina moves the ball and plays with swagger.
rode the bench in New Orleans for years before leading the Panthers to the Super Bowl in his first season as a starter, he often throws off his back foot and can be overly emotional.
Oh, and he wins - 48-30 as a starter, including the playoffs.
``We all love football, but he really has a passion to play,'' Panthers fullback Brad Hoover said. ``He shows it on the field and I think a lot of guys follow that.''
That leadership quality certainly applies to Warner and Collins. Warner, once part of the Greatest Show on Turf in St. Louis before being discarded, has become a machine in the desert. Replacing former Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart, Warner has completed an NFL-best 69.9 percent of his passes for Arizona (5-3) at age 37.
Collins, who turns 36 next month, replaced Vince Young, the No. 3 pick in the 2006, after Young's knee injury and his refusal to re-enter the game in the opener. Collins doesn't have great numbers - a 72.9 passer rating - but his leadership is evident. The Titans (8-0) are the league's only unbeaten team.
That might baffle Carolina fans who remember a young Collins asking out of the lineup in 1998, leading to his release.
It seems like maturity and wisdom matter.
's be honest, were forced into action early when they weren't ready. Now they can sit back and learn.''
That's what Green Bay did with Aaron Rodgers, the first-round pick who sat behind Favre in Green Bay for three years. When Favre retired, Rodgers was anointed the starter, and Green Bay stuck with him even after Favre changed his mind.
Rodgers has thrown 13 touchdown passes and only five interceptions and recently received a contract extension. Favre has two more TD passes for the Jets, but also 12 interceptions.
``I think he can play better than he's played, and he's played pretty darn good,'' Packers coach Mike McCarthy said of Rodgers.
The dominos that fell after the Favre trade landed Chad Pennington in Miami. Pennington has helped the Dolphins recover from last year's 1-15 disaster to get into the AFC East race, and allowed Chad Henne to watch and learn.
``In our case, with Pennington out there, Chad Henne gets to learn something every game, a little bit of something every single game,'' Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said.
But there was no luxury of waiting for a QB to develop in Atlanta and Baltimore. The Falcons turned to Ryan, the No. 3 pick in the draft, from Day 1. Looking ready-made for the NFL, Ryan has helped the Falcons go from league laughingstock to contender in the NFC South.
that you have to learn when you come into this league and I still have a long way to go.''
The Ravens were forced to use Flacco after Kyle Boller and Troy Smith were sidelined. Baltimore has simplified its offense and used some gadget plays to sit at 5-3.
``We're a young offense, and every game we're growing and getting more experience,'' said Flacco, the 18th pick in the draft.
Still, many teams do everything they can to avoid playing young quarterbacks. It's why Carolina gambled that Delhomme would return from his ligament-replacement surgery and didn't draft or sign a veteran QB in the offseason.
``He's a proven winner with us,'' Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said. ``Those guys are hard to find.''
Just look at all the highly drafted QB busts, while undrafted guys like Romo, Delhomme and Warner have shined.
``You can prep somebody at an interview at a combine to say the right things,'' Delhomme said. ``But until that pressure-packed situation, who knows what's going through your mind when you break the huddle and it's third down and you have to get a first down. You can't recreate that. You don't know what's going on in somebody's mind.''
Cassel filling in adequately. Pittsburgh sits atop the AFC North behind the reliable Ben Roethlisberger, fresh off signing a monster contract in the offseason.
Still, it seems strange seeing Rivers, Warner, Brees and Rodgers atop many passing statistics. Rivers' 107.8 passer rating and 19 touchdown passes for San Diego are tops in the league. Brees has thrown and completed more passes for more yards than anybody else for New Orleans' pass-happy offense.
Meanwhile in Washington, Jason Campbell has thrown only two interceptions all season, allowing the Redskins to get in the NFC playoff picture.
Other teams are having trouble. Cleveland recently changed quarterbacks. Woeful Detroit had to coax Daunte Culpepper out of retirement. Oakland's JaMarcus Russell weighed down by a weak supporting cast, is coming off an awful performance, raising doubts if making him the No. 1 overall pick last year was a wise move.
Those whispers were around Eli Manning for a while, too. But the No. 1 pick in 2004 has gone from being booed to worshipped in New York.
``He's got a Super Bowl MVP Trophy to go along with (the fact) that people were trying to run him out of town every year because he was the No. 1 pick in the draft,'' Giants center Shaun O'Hara said. ``Along with that great work ethic that he has, he has a lot of talent. I think that all of his hard work is paying off now.''
Sometimes it takes patience, too. Warner was once bagging groceries. Delhomme may never have gotten a chance if Rodney Peete didn't struggle so much in the 2003 opener. Carolina turned to Delhomme, who led a comeback win and then a Super Bowl charge.
Now Delhomme is part of a diverse, hard to figure group of QBs that has combined for an 84.9 passer rating, highest in NFL history.
``The biggest thing is, whenever you do, choke the life off that chance and squeeze it for every ounce that you can,'' Delhomme said. ``That's what I've tried to do.''
AP Sports Writers Jaime Aron, Tom Canavan, David Ginsburg, Charles Odum, Teresa M. Walker, Joseph White and Steven Wine contributed to this report.

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