NFC South: Stephen Davis

What happened with the Carolina Panthers on Monday morning is a reminder that the NFL is a cold, hard business and the win-loss record is all that really matters.

The Panthers fired general manager Marty Hurney. It was inevitable. Carolina came into the season with very high expectations but is off to a 1-5 start. The Panthers haven’t had a winning season since 2008.

Fans are getting restless, and so is team owner Jerry Richardson, a man who spent a ton of money coming out of this past summer’s lockout.

[+] EnlargeMarty Hurney
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneMarty Hurney had been the Panthers' GM since 2002.
Someone had to take the fall, and Hurney was the choice. You can question whether Hurney was the right guy to sacrifice, and some already are doing that.

“Marty wasn't the reason we are losing!" Carolina defensive end Charles Johnson said on his Twitter account. “That's bs! Unbelievable! Marty might be the realist GM that I know #InMyMind BS BS BS BS!"

You can wonder if maybe head coach Ron Rivera, offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski or defensive coordinator Sean McDermott should have been ousted. At least to me, it looks as though the Panthers have a talented roster that is not being coached very well.

And you can certainly question the timing of Hurney’s firing. Does it really make sense to fire the guy who runs the personnel department after Week 7?

No, it doesn’t. The Panthers will bring in someone from outside or elevate director of pro scouting Mark Koncz, but either way, they’re not going to right the ship in the middle of the season. Any personnel moves that can help this team will have to come in the offseason.

But this wasn’t just a football move. It went much deeper than that.

To understand what I mean by that, you have to know a bit about Hurney and Richardson. They were -- and even now probably will remain -- exceptionally close. After saying he’d never have a general manager again after Bill Polian’s ugly departure, Richardson hired Hurney to manage the salary cap in 1998.

The two hit it off, and Hurney quickly gained Richardson’s trust. When former coach George Seifert ran the franchise into the ground in 2001, Richardson reversed course and promoted Hurney to general manager. He also essentially let Hurney hire John Fox as coach.

The Panthers reached the Super Bowl in Hurney and Fox's second season together, 2003. Two seasons later, they were back in the NFC Championship Game.

But soon after that, Richardson started to see cracks. He wanted to see back-to-back winning seasons, and he was starting to worry about growing egos.

Richardson’s worries eventually turned into realities. Fox never produced consecutive winning seasons, and the level of trust between the coach and Richardson seemed to erode to a point where things became downright hostile in Fox’s final season, 2010.

But the Richardson-Hurney relationship survived all that, and Richardson let Hurney hire Rivera to replace Fox. Part of the reason is Hurney is one of the nicest, most down-to-earth people you’ll ever meet in football or anywhere else. He’s the kind of guy who picked up the phone to offer condolences to a reporter whose father had died the moment he heard about it.

Hurney is the kind of guy who would call a reporter on draft night just to exchange thoughts on what happened around the league. He’s the kind of guy who would never lie to you and always try to steer a reporter in the right direction, even if it wasn’t necessarily in his best interest.

On the job, Hurney made some brilliant moves through the years -- signing Jake Delhomme and Stephen Davis as free agents, drafting the likes of Julius Peppers, Jordan Gross and Ryan Kalil. His drafting of quarterback Cam Newton looked brilliant last year, but not so much this season.

He also made some very questionable moves -- signing Delhomme to a big contract extension after the quarterback had flamed out, drafting Armanti Edwards, Jimmy Clausen, Dwayne Jarrett, Terrell McClain, Eric Norwood, Everette Brown, Jeff Otah and some other busts. He also committed $80 million of Richardson’s money to running backs DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert.

But for some reason, the coaching staff isn’t making much use out of Williams, Stewart and Tolbert. Is that Hurney’s fault?

I don’t think so. And I don’t think Richardson totally believes that, either.

Still, it really doesn’t matter. Richardson needed a scapegoat, and it had to be hard for him to decide on Hurney. But keep in mind, Richardson once fired his two sons (Mark as team president and Jon as stadium president). His logic on that move was that their dysfunctional relationship was taking a toll on the other 300 people who worked in the building and on fans.

The logic on Hurney was similar. Things weren’t going well, and fans were giving up on the Panthers.

When I spoke to Hurney last week, he seemed resigned to the idea that his time was running out, but it seemed he thought the move would come more toward the end of the season.

That might have been more logical. But Richardson had to send a message now to his fans that he still cares about winning and that the current product is unsatisfactory. It would be difficult to fire the entire coaching staff or fire Rivera and elevate one of his assistants in the middle of the season.

Someone had to go now, and that was Hurney. But I think it should be clear to Rivera, every assistant coach in the building and every player that if Richardson is willing to get rid of Hurney, no one is sacred.

There’s going to be a lot more housecleaning in Carolina after the season. This was just the first step.
For only the second time in its history, the NFC South could finish a season without a 1,000-yard rusher.

A player needs to average 62.5 yards per game to reach a 1,000. At the moment, Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin is the only NFC South player on pace for 1,000 yards – barely.

Martin is averaging 64.6 rushing yards per game. Atlanta’s Michael Turner is slightly off the pace at 59.5 yards per game.

No other NFC South running back has reached the 200-yard mark.

Since its inception in 2002, the only season in which the NFC South hasn’t had a 1,000-yard rusher was 2007, when Tampa Bay’s Earnest Graham led the division with 898 yards.

In the history of the NFC South, there have been, 17 1,000-yard seasons.

Here’s a look at who has reached 1,000 yards:

Mike Tolbert plans to do it all

June, 13, 2012
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There seems to be a lot of confusion among fans of the Carolina Panthers about what position Mike Tolbert will play.

The Panthers keep saying he is a fullback and then rave about his versatility. Throw in the fact that Tolbert carried the ball 121 times for San Diego last season and it’s understandable where the confusion stems from.

[+] EnlargeMike Tolbert
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonMike Tolbert prides himself on his versatility.
Carolina still is a relatively new franchise. For much of its existence, Brad Hoover lined up at fullback and blocked for a variety of runners including Stephen Davis, DeShaun Foster, Williams and Nick Goings. The roles were clear. The running backs ran the ball and Hoover blocked. Hoover was a fan favorite and it’s a little difficult to imagine the Panthers using a fullback any way other than they used Hoover.

But the days of Hoover and former coach John Fox are long gone. This is the second year for coach Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, who never will be confused with former coordinators Dan Henning or Jeff Davidson. One of the first things Rivera and Chudzinski did this offseason was reach back into their past. Both previously were assistants in San Diego and they went out and lured Tolbert to Carolina.

Rivera and Chudzinski know Tolbert well and they have a clear vision of how they want to use him. He’ll block for Williams and Stewart at times, but that’s not all Tolbert will be asked to do.

“I think the different things 'Chud' has him incorporated in as far as running the ball and catching the ball and blocking, splitting him out and moving him around and those types of things, I think those are positives,’’ Rivera said. “When you have a guy that versatile, it helps your football team.’’

That still may sound a bit vague, so I asked Tolbert to describe the role he expects to play for the Panthers.

“Just a versatile player that helps in any way I can -- special teams, fullback and running back," Tolbert said. “I pride myself on being able to do it all. Letting my game evolve over the last four years in San Diego has really helped me to get to where I’m at today.’’

You could make a case that Carolina’s backfield already was overcrowded before Tolbert arrived. Williams and Stewart, who each have been 1,000-yard rushers in the past, had to share carries last year in an offense that suddenly turned pass happy with rookie quarterback Cam Newton. Stewart was on the field for 55.2 percent of the offensive plays, while Williams took part in 42.7 percent of the plays. In San Diego, Tolbert took part in 44.4 percent of the Chargers’ offensive plays.

But Tolbert insists there is enough room for all three backs to get plenty of playing time and he throws out some scenarios that Carolina fans might have trouble picturing right now.

“I think we mesh well together,’’ Tolbert said. “They are different types of backs. DeAngelo is more the slicer and Jonathan is more of the power guy and I kind of fit in between. It’s going to be fun for all of us to get in the backfield at the same time or myself with DeAngelo or with Jonathan or just one out of there at times. It’s going to be fun to put it all together and see what happens.’’

All three of them in the backfield at the same time? Tolbert playing tailback in a single-back set?

Yeah, it’s all possible. We’ll have to wait until the fall to really see it. But you’re going to see some unique things out of the Carolina backfield in 2012. Don’t believe me? Think back to last year when Chudzinski first arrived. Did anybody really expect to see Newton throwing for 400 yards in each of his first two games?

Of course not. But this is a different Carolina team and as we move into the second year of Chudzinski’s offense, we’re going to see it evolve even more.

I’m heading out to the practice field shortly to catch another session of Carolina’s minicamp. I’ll be back with more this afternoon.

Around the NFC South

May, 16, 2012
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Time for a look at the top Wednesday morning headlines from around the NFC South.
  • I don’t know if it will change anything, but New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive end Will Smith and former Saints Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove will have appeals of their suspensions for their roles in the bounty program heard by an arbitrator Wednesday. Even if nothing comes of this, this isn’t the end of the line. The NFL Players Association has filed a separate grievance with the league’s system arbitrator. They also have filed an appeal with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who issued the punishments in the first place.
  • Although the Saints have a veteran coaching staff and roster, Jeff Duncan writes they already miss suspended coach Sean Payton. I think the Saints potentially can weather this one, but it’s going to be a process and some assistant coaches and some of the leadership among the players will have to step forward to help compensate for some of the intangibles that left the building with Payton.
  • Here’s a column that takes issue with the prospect of taxpayer money being used to potentially finance a new stadium for the Atlanta Falcons. I totally understand the argument that the people of Georgia have other needs and that Falcons’ owner Arthur Blank already makes plenty of money. But, in today’s NFL, you need state-of-the-art stadiums to stay competitive. It may not be ideal, but the norm is for taxpayers to pick up at least some of the tab for a new stadium.
  • Speaking of sports and the economy, let’s go a little outside the box. I don’t do much reading in the world of finance, but a former co-worker passed along this column by a financial planner, who writes that recent events have caused him to lose his life-long passion for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the NFL in general. The author concludes that professional sports are a waste of time, money and energy. I don’t necessarily agree with that, but he brings up some points worth pondering.
  • Former Carolina Panthers running back Stephen Davis was inducted into the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame. Davis earned the honor exclusively for his spectacular high school career, when he was nicknamed “Little Herschel’’ after Herschel Walker. But I’ll always remember Davis for his role in the Panthers’ 2003 season. That year, Davis arrived in Carolina and instantly became the focus of the offense. Jake Delhomme, Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad each made some big plays along the way, but Davis was the glue to the Carolina offense as the Panthers went to their only Super Bowl.
  • Brian Allee-Walsh has a theory that agent Tom Condon isn’t simply looking for a new deal for New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees. He speculates that Condon is trying to raise the bar for all quarterback contracts. There’s some logic in there because Condon’s agency represents nearly half of the NFL’s starting quarterbacks.

2012 HOF ballot has NFC South ties

September, 28, 2011
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The Pro Football Hall of Fame just announced its list of first-year-eligible candidates for the Class of 2012 and it includes two guys with NFC South ties.

Receiver Keyshawn Johnson, who played for Tampa Bay and Carolina, and running back Stephen Davis, who spent part of his career with Carolina, are among 11 players and coaches on the ballot for the first time.

There are 103 candidates for the Class of 2012 and that list will be narrowed to 25 in mid-November. In January, the list will be reduced to 15 finalists. The day before the Super Bowl will be the final vote and somewhere between four and seven candidates will be selected for induction.

My guess is that neither Davis nor Johnson will make it on the first ballot, but they may have a chance to get in down the road. Feel free to share your thoughts on their chances at the Hall of Fame in the comments section below.
Now that Kris Jenkins has retired and John Fox is long gone as the head coach in Carolina, there’s a classic Panthers’ story that finally can be told.

It’s been talked about by team employees, coaches and players for years, but had always remained behind the scenes -- until now.

It happened during Carolina’s 2003 Super Bowl season. It was Halloween week in New Orleans and Jenkins, who was one of the team’s more playful characters, went shopping on Bourbon Street the Saturday before the game. For some reason he decided to buy a mask, but it wasn’t just any ordinary mask.

It was a mask the same shape, size and coloring as the head of a wolf.

Jenkins brought it back to the team hotel and planned to take it home to Charlotte the next night. As the night went on, Jenkins decided he wanted to have some fun with the mask that night.

Former strength and conditioning coach Jerry Simmons was the man responsible for checking to see all the players were in bed by curfew. He had a key to each room and would go in to check there were bodies in each bad.

Jenkins, who could be quite charming when in the right mood, begged Simmons, a man with a pretty good sense of humor, to let him tag along on the first few bed checks -- of course, wearing his mask.

They got to the room of running back Stephen Davis, who was sound asleep. Wearing the mask, Jenkins, who was listed at 335 pounds most of his career but often was closer to 350, climbed on Davis’ bed and began jumping up and down.

Davis was so startled that it took Jenkins and Simmons a long time to calm him down. When the team got to the Superdome the next day, there was legitimate concern that Davis might have a bad game due to having his sleep interrupted and that Fox would find out and be furious.

As it turned out, Davis survived the encounter with the big “wolf’’ just fine. He played one of his best games as a Panther. He carried 31 times for 178 yards and a touchdown as the Panthers won 23-20 in overtime.

Dream free agents for NFC South

May, 12, 2011
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The NFL draft is long over and all we have to look forward to now is free agency, though we don't know when or how it will come or exactly what it will look like.

But if there is a 2011 season, it will have to be preceded by some sort of free-agency period, one last window for teams to fine-tune their rosters with what they couldn't get in the draft.

We’ll spare you most of the boring details of the labor negotiations, but we do have to point out that the rules for a potential free-agency period aren’t set. They could be determined if a new labor agreement is reached and that probably would include some tweaks to past rules. It has long been assumed that if the lockout is lifted before an agreement that free agency rules will be the same as they were in 2010. But word has started to trickle out in the past few days that might not be the case.

At this point, we only can look at hypothetical situations -- all you can do is dream and you might as well dream big. With that in mind, let’s take a look at one free-agency dream scenario for each NFC South franchise.

Atlanta Falcons -- This is the easiest call in the division because you can see it coming like a slow-moving storm or Arthur Blank strolling to the sideline late in a game. Let’s go ahead and make Atlanta’s dream move signing Minnesota defensive end Ray Edwards.

Some of our coming moves are pie-in-the-sky scenarios that probably won’t happen, but this one has serious potential. Edwards has five seasons in the league, which could make him a restricted or unrestricted free agent, depending on the rules of free agency. If at all possible, I think the Falcons will pursue a player who had eight sacks in 14 games last season and 8.5 the season before that.

Edwards is just hitting his prime and sure looks like the one missing link between the Falcons being a team that exits the playoffs early and one that can challenge for the Super Bowl. Blank and general manager Thomas Dimitroff already put most of their chips on the table when they traded up on draft night to get wide receiver Julio Jones. He’s the explosive player they wanted on offense.

Edwards can be the explosive guy on defense. Carolina’s Charles Johnson, a probable restricted free agent, and Green Bay’s Cullen Jenkins could be fall-back options. But the Falcons already have shown strong signs this offseason they’re not interested in falling back.

Carolina Panthers -- Let’s imagine for a moment that Carolina owner Jerry Richardson opens his free-agent checkbook for the first time in several years to bring in cornerback Johnathan Joseph, who has been playing with Cincinnati and is another five-year player.

If Joseph is a free agent, this move would make all sorts of sense. He's a local product, from just over the border in Rock Hill, S.C. He also has nine interceptions the past two seasons. Carolina has Richard Marshall and Chris Gamble, but their futures are very uncertain.

Richardson has had some success in the past bringing local products home -- Stephen Davis, Kevin Donnalley, Ricky Proehl -- and Carolina has invested a lot in its young defensive line and has a good group of linebackers. Joseph could solidify the secondary and new coach Ron Rivera suddenly could have a nice defense. By the way, I know there’s speculation about defensive tackle Tommie Harris ending up with the Panthers because of his Chicago ties to Rivera. That could happen. But I don’t view Harris as a dream scenario. I view him as a guy with questions about his knees, who could be a decent pickup if he can stay healthy.

New Orleans Saints -- This one’s tough because the Saints have a bunch of young and talented, but totally unproven players at outside linebacker. Plus, veteran outside linebacker Scott Shanle can become an unrestricted free agent. The list of players at outside linebacker who definitely will be unrestricted is pretty thin. You could take a veteran such as Detroit’s Julian Peterson and gamble that he’ll regain some of his early-career magic the way some other veterans have with the Saints in recent years. The Saints have shown willingness to gamble on injured guys in the past and Carolina’s Thomas Davis has huge upside.

But Peterson’s no long-term solution and Davis is a total unknown because he’s had two major knee injuries. In a best-case scenario, the Saints will re-sign Shanle. Then, they’ll go after Buffalo’s Paul Posluszny. He’s a four-year player and could end up being restricted. But hey, we can dream.

Put Posluszny with Shanle and Jonathan Vilma and the Saints would be better off at linebacker than they were in 2009, when Shanle and Vilma were joined by Scott Fujita.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- The Bucs spending big money in free agency? Well, they haven’t done it in some time unless you count Derrick Ward, and that didn’t work out. But there’s one sure-fire move that could excite a fan base that wasn’t buying tickets during a 10-6 season in 2010 and put this team over the top: sign cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.

Asomugha’s the one true gem we know will be in this free-agent class and his price tag is going to be astronomical. But if there is a salary cap, the Bucs will have more room under it than any team in the league. The Bucs showed a willingness to spend big money once before, offering more to defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth than the Redskins did before Haynesworth went to Washington. There are strong rumors Asomugha will end up in the NFC East, but Tampa Bay can use the lack of a state income tax in Florida, a great natural-grass field, the weather, a team on the rise and coach Raheem Morris (a former defensive backs coach) as selling points.

The future of Aqib Talib is unsure because of off-field problems. Sign Asomugha and the Bucs have a corner more talented than Talib who doesn’t come with the headaches. Put him out there with veteran Ronde Barber, who still plays at a high level, and younger players such as E.J. Biggers and Myron Lewis. If the pass-rushers taken in the draft (Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers) work out, Tampa Bay’s corners suddenly could be dominant.

Remember, it’s all hypothetical. But wouldn’t the NFC South be a better and more exciting place if these dream scenarios actually came true?

Best Panthers Team Ever: 2003

June, 28, 2010
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Notable players: RB Stephen Davis, QB Jake Delhomme, WR Steve Smith, WR Muhsin Muhammad, DE Julius Peppers, DT Kris Jenkins, LB Dan Morgan.

Analysis: When owner Jerry Richardson talked about how the life had been drained from his franchise during a disastrous 1-15 season in 2001 under coach George Seifert, he couldn’t have expected how dramatic the turnaround would be. Nobody saw the Panthers going to the Super Bowl within two years, but that’s exactly what happened with first-time head coach John Fox.

[+] EnlargeStephen Davis
Craig Jones/Getty ImagesStephen Davis rushed for a career-high 1,444 yards in 2003.
In 2002, Fox’s team showed some promise, but there was no real reason to think the Panthers were ready for an incredible run. They had the makings of a very good defensive line, but nobody really knew how much Davis had left when the Panthers brought him in and nobody had a clue what Delhomme, who had spent his career on the bench in New Orleans, might bring.

Rodney Peete opened the season as the starting quarterback and that lasted all of two quarters before Delhomme came on to rally the Panthers and take over the job. With Davis carrying the offense and the defensive line dominating, Delhomme continued to show a knack for leading comebacks.

The Panthers caught lightning in a bottle and also rode the emotion of preseason news that linebackers coach and former team captain Sam Mills and starting linebacker Mark Fields each had cancer. Carolina finished the regular season 11-5 and won its first NFC South championship.

A playoff victory at home against Dallas wasn’t a big surprise, but the Panthers stunned just about everyone by going on the road and winning at St. Louis (in double overtime) and completely dominating the Eagles on a frigid night in Philadelphia.

That put the Panthers into the Super Bowl against New England. A touchdown pass to Ricky Proehl with one minute, eight seconds remaining tied the score. But Carolina’s chances of pulling the upset faded as John Kasay followed up by kicking the ball out of bounds to give New England good field position. The Patriots kicked the game-winning field goal with four seconds remaining.

Most impressive win: It’s tough to top the image of Steve Smith scoring a touchdown on the first play of the second overtime in St. Louis, but players and coaches will tell you the key moment of the season came in Week 2 at Tampa against the defending Super Bowl champions. The Bucs scored a late touchdown and needed only to kick the extra point to win the game. The Panthers blocked the kick, forced overtime and won 12-9.

Research room: This team was known as the “Cardiac Cats." The reason was simple. The Panthers won seven games in the last two minutes or in overtime.

Honorable mention

1996: In only the second year of the franchise’s existence, coach Dom Capers, quarterback Kerry Collins and a great defense took the Panthers all the way to the NFC Championship Game in Green Bay. A home playoff victory against Dallas provided a truly monumental moment for an expansion team and the city of Charlotte.

2005: Fox’s 2004 team underachieved, but the 2005 team overachieved more than any in franchise history. Give the credit to Smith for carrying the Panthers all the way to the NFC Championship Game in Seattle. Injuries to the running backs kept the Panthers from running like Fox wanted to, but Smith and Delhomme had a special chemistry that year.

2008: A 12-4 record, an NFC South crown and a first-round bye added up to absolutely nothing. In what easily is the most disappointing game in franchise history, Arizona came into Bank of America Stadium and routed the Panthers 33-13. Starting with that game, the normally reliable Delhomme began turning the ball over so frequently that he played his way out of Charlotte.
DeAngelo Williams & Jonathan StewartUS Presswire, Getty ImagesCarolina running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart split carries last season and both eclipsed 1,100 yards rushing.
This really happened and I’ve still got the tape to prove it.

During a winter in which everyone has been bashing coach John Fox and GM Marty Hurney, there actually is someone singing their praises. It’s Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams.

“I think the front office and coaching staff are single-handedly prolonging my career and (Jonathan Stewart's) career,’’ Williams said a few weeks ago when he was attending festivities at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

Yes, praise for Fox and Hurney, the same two guys who have had their sanity questioned after letting Julius Peppers walk away as a free agent, releasing quarterback Jake Delhomme and parting ways with just about every player over 30 years old. Aside from kicker John Kasay and punter Jason Baker, wide receiver Steve Smith and defensive end Tyler Brayton are the only Panthers over 30.

“Thirty is like the new 50 in the NFL, especially when it comes to tailbacks,’’ Williams said.

Williams is 26 and will turn 27 on April 25. He’s also one of the smartest and most observant players in the NFC South. But that sometimes goes unnoticed because Williams often tries to keep a low profile with the media.

That day at Disney was different, though. Williams was letting it flow and his wisdom and philosophies are something that should be shared more often. Williams talked at length about Carolina's two-headed backfield, sometimes called “Double Trouble’’ or “Smash and Dash.’’

He put it into a perspective that you don’t often hear, but it’s the perspective Fox and Hurney hold and it’s why they believe so strongly in a two-back system.

“We’re each about 220 or 230 carries a year,’’ Williams said. “I’d rather have that than 300-plus carries a year. That wears on your legs and you’re not going to last long doing that. With me and Jonathan back there and sharing it the way we do, that’s a real treat and neither one of us is going to get worn out.’’

Williams is pretty accurate in his numbers. Last season he carried 216 times for 1,117 yards and seven touchdowns. Stewart carried 221 times for 1,133 yards and 10 touchdowns. Williams missed three games because of injuries, but said that didn’t really have a big impact on the carry totals for him and Stewart.

“It’s going to be close to a 50-50 split no matter what," Williams said. “That’s what the coaching staff and the front office wants and it’s also what Jonathan and I want. It’s good for both of us. We’re at our best when it’s that way."

Funny that Williams realizes that when some running backs with more ego and some Carolina fans can’t quite grasp the fact that less is more in this situation. Williams is a restricted free agent this year. He’s carrying the highest tender and that means the Panthers would receive a first- and a third-round pick as compensation if another team were to sign Williams away.

With the Panthers not holding a first-round pick this year, a lot of Carolina fans started throwing out rumors or theories that the Panthers should let Williams go and pick up some more draft picks. Even if an offer sheet comes from another team, that’s not going to happen. The Panthers can match any offer and they’re not letting Williams go anywhere.

In fact, there have been reports that the Panthers are working to sign Williams to a long-term contract. Nothing has happened on that yet, but don’t be surprised if something gets done before too long.

[+] EnlargeStephen Davis
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImaStephen Davis rushed for 1,444 yards in 2003 for the Panthers, but he gained just 818 the remaining three seasons of his career.
The recent purge of veterans has left a lot of Carolina fans questioning the sanity of Fox and Hurney. But the way they use Williams and Stewart as a tandem should be Exhibit A that the coach and general manager have a long-term plan in place. They saw a running back get used too much one season and break down the next.

That was Stephen Davis, who carried the Panthers to the Super Bowl in the 2003 season. After that, the carries and age caught up to Davis and he never was the same again. Williams and Stewart already have dealt with some minor injuries and part of the master plan is to be very careful not to overuse them and the other part of that plan is to keep them together for the long haul.

“It’s easy to say that either one of us could run for 1,500 or 1,600 yards if we were getting more than 300 carries," Williams said. “But that’s not really true. We’re best the way we are because we can keep doing what we’re doing every year for a long time. Yeah, if you went with just one of us for one year, you might get 1,500 or 1,600 yards. But you might have a broken down car the next year and we’d both be done by the time we’re 30, which is still a ways down the road for both of us. The way it is now, is perfect for both of us."

Williams and Stewart both had surgeries after the season. Williams had his right ankle cleaned up. Stewart had some work done on his foot. Both are expected to be fully healthy for training camp. And, contrary to some of the fan-generated rumors out there, both are expected to be back in Carolina.

The Panthers haven’t revealed their exact plan for going on after their purge of veterans. They’ll be going with a new quarterback, Matt Moore, and they’re likely to be looking for wide receiver help in the draft or what’s left of free agency.

But there’s going to be one constant on the offense. Williams and Stewart are going to remain the focal points and they’re going to keep doing that with a healthy split of carries.

“I don’t want to be one of those tailbacks that’s washed up at 30,’’ Williams said. “I think, in the system we have, I can be productive for a few years past 30. I’m not there yet and we’ll find out for sure in a few years. But, right now, I love what we’re doing. Jonathan and I both have low mileage on our cars and that’s great. We’re running on supreme and the gas is cheap right now. We’re going to enjoy the ride.’’

More numbers on Bush's big game

January, 17, 2010
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I just received some more details from ESPN Stats & Information about Reggie Bush's dynamic performance in Saturday’s playoff victory.

Bush
Bush
On five carries, Bush averaged 16.8 yards. That’s a league postseason record. The previous record was 14.9 yards by Michael Vick in a 2004 divisional playoff game. Stephen Davis set the record one year before Vick in a divisional playoff game. Before that, the record was 12.8 by Bo Jackson in a 1990 divisional playoff.

Bush also became only the second player in history to score on a run and a punt return in the same postseason game. Charlie Trippi first did it in 1947.

Bush also became just the fifth player in history to score two touchdowns of 45 or more yards in a postseason game. Randy Moss (2000 season) Ricky Sanders (in Super Bowl XXII), Elmger Angsman (1947) and Wayne Millneer (1937 also did it).

Bush’s 83-yard punt return also was the third longest in NFL postseason history. Jermaine Lewis (88 yards) set the record in 2001. Anthony Carter had an 84-yarder in a 1987 playoff game.

Panthers' Williams hits 1,000

December, 8, 2008
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Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- DeAngelo Williams just went over the 1,000-yard mark for the season. That makes him the first Carolina running back to rush for 1,000 yards since Stephen Davis in 2003. Coincidence or not, that's the last season the Panthers went to the Super Bowl.

Williams went over the 1,000-yard mark on a 40-yard run in the second quarter.

 
 Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
 DeAngelo Williams needs only 45 yards Monday night to reach 1,000 yards rushing for the season.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Some time Monday night, the Carolina Panthers' 2006 draft is going to make sense.

There won't be any grand ceremony as the Panthers host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in an NFC South showdown on "Monday Night Football" (ESPN, 8:30 ET), but there might be an unofficial coming-out party.

Keep an eye on DeAngelo Williams, the little Carolina running back who critics said before the '06 draft and much of the past two seasons was too small and too soft to be much of a factor in the NFL.

Williams (5-9, 217 pounds) is on the verge of putting all that to rest. He needs only 45 yards to reach 1,000 yards rushing for the season, which would be a first for Williams. The Panthers have somehow built a reputation as a running team even though they haven't had a 1,000-yard runner since Stephen Davis in 2003.

In the minds of many, Davis, who carried the Panthers to their only Super Bowl appearance in 2003, remains the prototypical runner for a John Fox offense. But the speedy Williams will never be confused with the bruising Davis, which just goes to show Fox isn't nearly as stubborn or stuck in his ways as many believe.

It just took the coach a little while to figure out what he had in Williams, whom the Panthers took with the 27th overall pick in the 2006 draft. Williams came out of Memphis holding the NCAA record for all-purpose yards (7,573), but you wouldn't have known it if you watched Williams get lost in the shuffle behind DeShaun Foster.

There were flashes of promise here and there, but Williams got only two starts and 265 carries in his first two seasons as Foster got most of the work and produced very ordinary results.

When Foster was let go after last season and the Panthers used their first draft pick on Oregon running back Jonathan Stewart, there was a quick assumption Carolina had already judged Williams a bust. But that was never the case.

If you know anything about Fox, you know he's fiercely loyal, especially to his running backs. He stayed with Davis long after it was obvious his knees had nothing left and with Foster even though Williams had more upside.

In Fox's world, Williams had to wait his turn.

"DeAngelo, I think, has really stepped up his game from last year to this year," Fox said. "Obviously, he's gotten more opportunities. Part of our goal this offseason was to structure ourselves so we could get him more touches and also find another back, and we found Jonathan in the draft. I think DeShaun Foster did a great job here and taught DeAngelo how to be a pro. I think he's kind of taken Jonathan Stewart under his wing and taught him the ropes. They're both fine talents and fine players, and I think they're getting better every week."

Combining Williams with Stewart (584 yards and 127 carries) has turned out to be a tremendous combination for the Panthers. Williams may look like the classic speed guy and Stewart like the classic power back, but don't pigeonhole them.

Williams already has 11 rushing touchdowns this season, one off the franchise record Davis set in 2005. He also has scored at least one touchdown in the last six games to tie the franchise record set by receiver Patrick Jeffers in 1999.

Williams, who became close with Foster, said he had no regrets about playing a small role his first two seasons.

"It wasn't frustrating for me at all," Williams said. "I had the opportunity to share carries with another running back, so it prepared me going into this season."

What's happening this year is actually what the Panthers wanted to happen last year, but circumstances got in the way. When the Panthers hired Jeff Davidson to replace Dan Henning as the offensive coordinator after the 2006 season, they wanted Williams to become the dominant back in the tandem with Foster.

But Davidson's offense never really had a chance to get established in 2007 when quarterback Jake Delhomme went out with an elbow injury in the third game. While rotating quarterbacks Vinny Testaverde, David Carr and Matt Moore, the Panthers stayed conservative and stayed with Foster most of the time.

Williams may never fit the classic definition of a feature back who gets 25 carries a game. But that's not what Williams or the Panthers really want or need.

"I can't say yes and I can't say no based on the fact that the system I'm in right now is a very good position based on the fact that we're winning and we're being productive all at the same time," Williams said. "I couldn't ask for anything more."

Stewart's going to get his share of carries. But Williams is getting more, and that's working out just fine for the Panthers. With Delhomme healthy again and receiver Steve Smith making big plays, the Panthers are looking a little bit like their Super Bowl team.

The defense has played well most of the season, but more than anything, the Panthers are 9-3 and playing for first place in the NFC South because they're able to run the ball again.

"The identity of this team?" Williams said. "We like to think of ourselves as a balanced team. We pass the ball when we need to. We try to run the ball when we can. We just basically take what the defense gives us, nothing more and nothing less."

Maybe a little bit more. Maybe a balanced team with its first 1,000-yard runner in five years.

Carolina edition of the mailbag

November, 28, 2008
11/28/08
5:20
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Time to continue with our third installment of today's team-by-team mailbags. This time, it's the Carolina Panthers.


Michael in Fort Lauderdale writes: With Carolina and Jake Delhomme playing like garbage rite now. How do you see this division panning out with the Falcons, Bucs, and Saints playing really well rite now?

Pat Yasinskas: I know it may seem hard to believe, but the Panthers have lost only one game in the time they've been "playing like garbage''. That's true -- they didn't look good at all in wins against Detroit and Oakland and maybe the bottom falls out in Green Bay on Sunday. But, maybe, they put it back together and make this race very interesting. Carolina's got the toughest schedule over the last five games and Tampa Bay's schedule isn't bad. They've got to be considered the two favorites right now, simply because they're 8-3. But Atlanta is hanging in there nicely and the Falcons have established they're for real. You can't count them out. As I said above, you can't count the Saints out, either. They've got talent, but they've been inconsistent all season. If they can suddenly find some consistency, it's not impossible for them to run the table.

Vance in Salisbury, NC writes: Since its NFL Hall of Fame season. I have a list of names from the Panthers. Who do you belive is most deserving, and deserving at all if any: Sam Mills, Mike Rucker, Mike Minter, Stephen Davis, Mark Fields (John Kasay in future?).

Pat Yasinskas: I'd love to say Sam Mills should be in the Hall of Fame. Great player and an even greater person. But I can't honestly say Mills absolutely should be in the Hall of Fame. He was a linebacker without very flashy stats and it's hard to make a case for him. I'd still put him first out of the guys on your list and ahead of Kevin Greene, who wasn't on your list, but made it to the cut of 25 guys this year. Greene only spent a small portion of his career with the Panthers and so did Mills. Greene does have the flashy stats because he was a pass-rush specialist. But I'd argue for Mills ahead of him because I think Mills did more for his teams overall. As far as Rucker, Minter, Davis, Fields and Kasay, they all were (or in Kasay's case is a) very nice players. But I don't think any of them are Hall of Famers. I think Carolina's best bet for its first Hall of Famer might be Julius Peppers or Steve Smith, if they can put up big numbers for a few more years.

Posted by Scouts Inc.'s Doug Kretz

With Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith back from suspension, no one is happier than fellow wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad and quarterback Jake Delhomme. The Panthers' ground game appears stronger than it has at any time since 2003, running back Stephen Davis' last season with the club. And it took all of one game with Smith back in the fold to get the passing game hitting on all cylinders.

It's no coincidence that Delhomme's only touchdown pass over the first three games went to a tight end -- nor is it coincidence that he delivered two to perimeter targets (one each to Smith and Muhammad) upon Smith's return last week. Smith and Muhammad complement each other well, and their presence is important because the quality of Delhomme's weapons drop off significantly from there. Since 2004, the end of Muhammad's first tour in Carolina, Smith had been the team's only legitimate downfield threat and was more easily contained by rolled coverages (a corner with safety help over the top). The reacquisition of Muhammad forces opponents to respect the threat on the other side of the field, and Smith does the same for Muhammad.

Muhammad lacks Smith's top-end speed, but he's very physical, especially in a crowd. He's also sure-handed and runs precise routes, which can be extremely helpful to Delhomme when Smith is contained or the pass rush breaks through. Many NFL passing schemes require a quarterback to go through a progression to find an open target, and the passer wastes precious moments looking for a receiver who isn't in the exact spot he should be on a particular route. And because he knows exactly where Muhammad will be, Delhomme now has a safety valve he can depend on when all else fails.

The resurgence of Carolina's run game has only enhanced Delhomme's effectiveness. Running backs DeAngelo Williams and rookie Jonathan Stewart give the team two quality rushers who can pound the ball and move the chains. Williams has more elusiveness and lateral range, but Stewart is a punisher with more raw power. Both have the speed to go the distance after getting past the first level of defense. Most importantly, both show patience, read blocks well and locate run lanes -- crucial tools for runners in a power zone blocking scheme. Stewart is a reliable enough receiver, but Williams plays more in obvious passing situations because he's experienced and quicker to react in blitz pickups.

In a perfect world, offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson would maintain a 50/50 run/pass ratio, and through four games the Panthers are pretty close. An effective run game allows Davidson, rather than the down and distance, to dictate his play calling. Defenses are constantly analyzing the tendencies and anticipating the moves of offenses, so when Carolina opponents have no better odds than a coin flip when guessing run or pass, it's always risky for them to load up one way or the other.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

WilliamsStewart

Perhaps the biggest question surrounding the Carolina Panthers for fans (especially fantasy football players) is whether DeAngelo Williams or Jonathan Stewart will be the starting running back.

It may seem like a big deal and a big decision for coach John Fox because there's an obvious status that comes along with being the starter. But this situation is not a dilemma for Fox. It's a dream.

Having Stewart's power and Williams' speed gives Fox the kind of backfield combination he hasn't had in a long time. Fox has had to go through most of his tenure mixing and matching running backs because of injuries and, at times, a lack of options.

Although Fox always has been a believer in having two strong running backs, he's truly only had that situation once. That was in 2003 when Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster shared the load. It's no coincidence the Panthers made the Super Bowl that season.

It would be a stretch to declare Stewart the second coming of Davis, although he has a similar running style. Stewart is a rookie and no one knows for sure how he'll do in the NFL. But, on paper, he's the perfect complement to Williams, who hasn't had a chance to truly show his talents in his first two seasons, and that's a good start.

Williams and Stewart each ran for 100 yards in Saturday night's preseason victory against Washington. That's not going to happen every week in the regular season, but that's what the Panthers will shoot for.

No matter who starts, the load in this backfield will be shared. Things will be spread around far more than they were in 2003 when Davis carried 318 times for 1,444 yards and Foster had 429 yards on 113 carries. Look for a split much closer to 50-50.

In Fox's system, that would be a formula for success. A balanced tandem at running back has been a formula for success for a lot of teams. Five of the Super Bowl champions since 200 have had two running backs rushing for at least 500 yards and five teams that made the playoffs last year had two backs gain at least 500 yards.

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