CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -It was the likely the most anticipated play the Carolina Panthers ever ran in May.
Eight months after Jake Delhomme grabbed his right elbow in agony, and five months after the Panthers ended a miserable season without him, Delhomme began team drills in Wednesday's optional workout by hunching over center Ryan Kalil.
Delhomme downplayed the significance of throwing about 40 passes in his latest rehabilitation milestone following ligament-replacement surgery, but his teammates and coaches weren't as reserved.
``It's awesome to have your leader back under center,'' tight end Jeff King said.
``Having him back out there, his enthusiasm, is a joy to watch for sure,'' added coach John Fox.
Delhomme threw about 34 passes per day during April's minicamp, but they were during individual drills. On an overcast, cool Wednesday morning, Delhomme ran some plays with the first-team offense to kick off three weeks of no-contact workouts.
``It felt great,'' Delhomme said. ``I think mentally I was a little rusty, but that was to be expected. It was good to be out there in the huddle and actually competing again.''
The Panthers had trouble competing after Delhomme's chronic elbow pain became unbearable in Week 3 last season.
A month later, doctors replaced the failed ligament in his right elbow with a tendon from his left thigh. The procedure, known as ``Tommy John surgery,'' is more common among major league pitchers.
Although a baseball player usually takes a year or more to recover, Delhomme is nearing full strength. The Panthers believe he'll be ready to practice at least once a day when double sessions begin July 26.
``It's just a matter of fatigue in that area of his arm and getting his arm back in throwing shape,'' Fox said. ``The only way to do that is throw, and we've been cautious with that. He keeps getting stronger, throwing more each day, and the next day he feels fine. We'll kind of stay on that progress through summer school practices, take a little break, and then get ready for camp.''
And do the Panthers ever need a healthy Delhomme. The man who led the Panthers to their only Super Bowl appearance in 2003 was off to the best start of his career last season with eight touchdown passes and one interception.
He would end up leading the team in TD passes - despite playing in 2 1/2 games.
After Delhomme was sidelined, the ineffective David Carr, 44-year-old Vinny Testaverde and undrafted rookie Matt Moore combined for 11 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. The Panthers lost eight of their final 13 games to finish 7-9.
Now Delhomme is fit and pain-free with an arm that he says is as strong as ever.
``I think a lot had to do with my rehab routine,'' Delhomme said. ``I have become more specialized, I guess you can say in my lifts. So that has strengthened up everything in the arm, the fingers and the shoulder. But I do feel real good. Now it's easy to come on a one-a-day and do it. When you get back to back in training camp... But I anticipate not really having too many issues.''
And his teammates are smiling, dreaming about a healthy Delhomme leading a new-look offense that includes a bigger offensive line, a new backfield and more depth at receiver.
``That's what they say about baseball pitchers, they come back stronger,'' King said. ``The way he's been working, the way we've seen him work, I wouldn't doubt it.''
Notes: The Panthers were without their two first-round picks. RB Jonathan Stewart of Oregon can't participate because his school hasn't finished classes. T Jeff Otah remained sidelined with an ankle injury that caused him to miss April's minicamp. ... Unlike last year when since-traded DT Kris Jenkins skipped the workouts, the Panthers had full participation. ... Fox said he'll shorten training camp because they'll have fewer players. The Panthers, who used to carry 86 players, will be limited to 80 because they can no longer have roster-exempted players from the now defunct NFL Europa.

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