Patience paying off for Weinke

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 8, 2006

By Mike Cranston

Associated Press

CHARLOTTE — Chris Weinke had a chance to leave, get out of Jake Delhomme’s shadow and perhaps battle for a starting quarterback job.

But he didn’t even wait for the start of free agency in the offseason to re-sign with the Carolina Panthers.

“There are a lot of different things that go into it,” Weinke said. “I’m married, I have a baby and my wife loves Charlotte. We love the area. We love the organization. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side.

“I felt like, knowing this offense and knowing what kind of football team we had here, I wanted to be a part of it. That’s why I re-signed here before going and listening to any other offers.”

Weinke, 34, knew he may never play because Delhomme hasn’t missed a game since he took over as a starter early in the 2003 season. Weinke has played in three games and thrown 13 passes in four seasons.

But the former Heisman Trophy winner may finally get his chance on Sunday against the New York Giants. The seemingly indestructible Delhomme is nursing a sprained right thumb.

“There were a couple of sprinkles here and there at the end of games,” Weinke said, “but other than that, in terms of starting a game and being the guy, it’s been a while.”

And it could come at a key time. At 6-6, the Panthers are tied with three other teams for a wild-card spot — the visiting Giants are one of them.

Delhomme missed practice for a second straight day on Thursday and remains questionable, meaning coach John Fox may be forced to go with Weinke.

“We have a lot of confidence in Chris,” Fox said. “You always have a concern when you stick a new guy in, but that’s why they’re there.”

Some fans have been calling for Fox to make this move before the injury as Delhomme has struggled this season. He’s thrown two fourth-quarter interceptions in each of the last two games.

In Monday’s loss to Philadelphia, Delhomme’s interception in the end zone with 25 seconds left allowed the Eagles to hold on for a 27-24 win.

Weinke insists he hasn’t been listening to the criticism of Delhomme. He learned that lesson the last time he was a starter — for the 1-15 Panthers in 2001.

“I come in here to work every day, and I try not to read or listen to the things that are being said because I know what it was like,” Weinke said. “The only thing I can do is come in and be support for Jake. If I can help him in any way, I try to do that.”

Weinke hasn’t taken the conventional route to the NFL. The Minnesota native was considered the nation’s top high school quarterback when he signed with FSU. But he changed his mind to play minor league baseball in the Toronto Blue Jays organization.

Weinke spent six years in the minors, advancing to Triple-A but never to the majors. He decided to return to school and football in 1997 and won the Heisman as a 28-year-old senior in 2000.

But there were concerns about Weinke’s age and his mobility, and he wasn’t drafted until fourth round in 2001. When Jeff Lewis struggled in the preseason, coach George Seifert made Weinke the starter.

He led the Panthers to a season-opening win in Minnesota, but that was their only victory. Carolina set an NFL record with 15 consecutive losses to close the season, and Weinke took the brunt of the criticism.

Seifert was fired at the end of the season, and Weinke hasn’t been a regular starter since. Rodney Peete beat him out in 2002, and Delhomme took over a year later. So it was puzzling to some that Weinke decided to re-sign with Carolina.

“They can say what they want,” he said. “I knew I wanted to come back here. I wanted to be a part of this organization. We’ve got great players and coaches here, and I wanted to be a part of that. I felt like there was something special here.”

The last time Weinke played in a close game, he replaced a banged-up Delhomme late in the fourth quarter in Detroit and threw the game-winning TD pass to Ricky Proehl.

Weinke hopes to use that experience if he gets the call in Carolina’s biggest game of the season.

“People remember what you do in December, and we’re in a race now to get into the playoffs,” Weinke said. “There are four teams that are 6-6 that are trying to get those spots, and the team that is coming in this week is fighting for one of those spots, too.”