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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.’’

Freeman doing some scouting for Bucs

February, 26, 2010
Scott A. Miller/US PresswireQuarterback Josh Freeman is helping the Bucs prepare for the upcoming draft.
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- There’s a new guy helping the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as they scout the prospects for this year’s NFL draft.

It’s quarterback Josh Freeman -- the same guy their drafted with their top pick. Yes, he’s part franchise quarterback and part scout and he’ll even tip his hand and tell you some of the guys he thinks the Bucs should take.

"I’ve been in watching film of different receivers with the offensive coordinator and the quarterback coach,’’ Freeman said Friday. “You might not have the Michael Crabtree or the Darius Heyward-Bey, but it’s a pretty talented receiver group coming out this year. There’s Dez Bryant and I’m a big fan out Jordan Shipley out of Texas.’’

Along with “The Fabulous Sports Babe’’ of ESPN Radio Tampa, I got to spend about 20 minutes chatting with Freeman on Friday afternoon as he attended “ESPN The Weekend’’ and the re-branding of ESPN’s Wide World of Sports. It was just a momentary break for Freeman, who soon will be back in Tampa, working out and scouting.

Yes, the Bucs really are asking Freeman for his opinions. That may sound a little bit out of the ordinary, but it’s actually a very smart move. Freeman, after all, is the franchise quarterback and the most positive thing the Bucs have going for them at this moment. It only makes sense to hear his thoughts.

You might be a little surprised to hear that Freeman’s first choice isn’t to get a wide receiver. Freeman said, if the draft were today and he was in the shoes of general manager Mark Dominik, he would take Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.

“I would love to see Suh here,’’ Freeman said.

The Bucs would be wise to listen to Freeman’s thoughts on Suh because their quarterback knows the defensive tackle very well. They first became friends as teammates in a high-school all-star game, saw each other frequently as college foes and were hanging out together at the Super Bowl in Miami a few weeks ago.

“He basically lived in my backfield every time I played against Nebraska,’’ said Freeman, who played at Kansas State. “The drive that that guy has is unbelievable. He’s going to be a great teammate for whoever he goes to. The guy makes plays. He gets in the backfield and nobody can block him. They’re trying to figure out what’s going to help our team the most. If it’s a receiver, it’s a receiver. If it’s get Suh, it’s getting Suh. Anyway you look at it, I’m excited.’’

Freeman should be excited. After a 3-13 season in which Freeman took over as the starter near the halfway point, the Bucs have 10 picks in this year’s draft, including five in the top 99. If they can get Suh with the third overall pick, wide receiver could be a target area for one of their two second-round picks.

The Bucs already have made it clear they’ll let last year’s No. 1 wide receiver, Antonio Bryant, leave as a free agent.

“Antonio’s a great player,’’ Freeman said. “He makes a lot of plays. Obviously, the franchise -- the owners, GM and the coaches -- didn’t feel like he’d be able to help us next year. The time I got to spend with Antonio Bryant, I treasured it and he made a lot of great plays for me. I wish him luck with the rest of his career even though he’s not going to be in Tampa next season.’’

Freeman praised Bryant, but that formula didn’t always work in reverse. At one point last season, Bryant said his lack of production was due to playing with a rookie quarterback. That may be part of the reason why Bryant is on his way out of Tampa Bay.

You don’t criticize the franchise and Freeman is the franchise here. Freeman also praised Michael Clayton, Maurice Stovall and Sammie Stroughter, but he made no secret of the fact the Bucs are looking for a No. 1 receiver in the draft or free agency.

“Looking at our roster right now, we’ve got a lot of guys that can make plays,’’ Freeman said. “But we really don’t have that burner, the guy you can just send him on a Go (route), throw it up 70 yards and let him run under it.’’

The Bucs have that guy who can throw it up 70 yards in Freeman and they’re going to try to get him every toy possible because he is the franchise. At very least, Freeman’s going to have some say in who that guy is and, listening to him talk Friday, he’s more of a student of the game than I ever realized. Freeman talked extensively about college players at all positions and sounded a little like a draftnik.

That’s a good thing and talk about the draft wasn’t the only positive thing coming from Freeman. Although team offseason workouts don’t start for nearly another month, Tampa Bay fans will be happy to know that Freeman already has been working (not just scouting) for the last few weeks.

“You take a little break and after about two weeks, I was kind of like, “Man, I’m kind of tired of this. I’m ready to get back into the football mood,'’’ Freeman said. “I’ve started working out with our new quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt and our offensive coordinator (Greg Olson). I’ve been working. I can’t wait for the second season.’’

Freeman has seemed pretty poised ever since the Bucs drafted him. But I thought he seemed even more mature Friday. That may be because he already has seen so much. The Bucs fired offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski just before the season and the team struggled under first-year coach Raheem Morris for much of the season.

But there was some hope later in the season, after Freeman started playing. He had some good games and led a victory over Super Bowl champion New Orleans. Freeman said the game slowed down for him as the season went on and he’s looking forward to having an entire offseason working in Olson’s offense.

He also said he’s looking forward to Morris returning for his second season.

“It was kind of evident during the early part of the season, he was feeling his way around just like any rookie,’’ Freeman said. “They did the stuff with the coordinators and you could see later in the season we were playing better and better. You could tell he’s getting the grasp for it and he’s getting it fast. I’m excited to see him coach this year.’’

Funny, but that sounds a lot like the scouting report on the quarterback. Freeman went through a lot of the things rookie quarterbacks do. Late in the year, he did some really good things. You could tell he was grasping it and maybe he’s right about Morris grasping it.

Maybe the Bucs are just a few pieces from turning the corner. Maybe, with Freeman helping as a scout, the Bucs will figure out exactly what to put next to their franchise.




Sunday, 2/2