With Davis, Panthers no longer run on empty

Back supplies necessary fuel for Carolina's ground game

Super Bowl

Panthers -- Patriots

January 29, 2004|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

HOUSTON - The Carolina Panthers without Stephen Davis were like Poor Richard before his almanac. Interesting, perhaps, but not newsworthy. Curious, but not compelling.

The Panthers with Davis are the NFL's latest rags-to-Super Bowl story. Forget the 1-15 disaster of 2001. Just last season, Carolina's offense couldn't get out of its own way. No quarterback, no running threat, no chance.

That all changed last offseason when coach John Fox overhauled his haggard attack. He got quarterback Jake Delhomme in free agency and tackle Jordan Gross in the draft.

But his biggest coup was landing Davis, the veteran running back who got tossed out with the bath water by the Washington Redskins because he didn't fit Steve Spurrier's idea of offense and because he had a big contract.

Almost overnight, Davis transformed the Panthers from 7-9 misfits to 11-5 NFC South champions. Three playoff wins later, Carolina is one victory away from achieving the ultimate turnaround against the New England Patriots in Sunday's Super Bowl.

As great as their defense is and as gritty as Delhomme has been in the clutch, without Davis the Panthers (14-5) are nowhere near Reliant Stadium this week. He rumbled to a career-high 1,444 rushing yards in 14 games and slapped a sneer on the face of the once-meek Carolina offense.

"Stephen, much like [the Ravens'] Jamal Lewis, was the missing component," said Panthers center Jeff Mitchell, who played with Lewis on Baltimore's 2000 Super Bowl team. "We had a great defense and an average offense. It's the whole formula of the team to run the ball, hold onto it, not make mistakes. If you don't have a good back, you can't do that."

The Panthers are every bit the smash-mouth team - and more - that the Ravens were in their Super Bowl glory. With Davis as the ramrod, Carolina increased its per-game rush average by nearly 32 yards this season to 130.9. That ranked seventh best in the NFL.

After getting jettisoned by the Redskins, for whom he gained 5,790 yards in seven seasons, Davis wanted the chance to win and a reasonable proximity to his hometown of Spartanburg, S.C. In Charlotte, N.C., he found both.

"When I had my [free agent] visit, Coach Fox and Coach [Dan] Henning said that `we are going to run the ball,' " Davis said. "I wanted to be a part of that. Also, being close to home and have the opportunity to play in front of my friends and family was a great fit for us."

Fox was true to his word. With Henning calling plays as offensive coordinator, the Panthers run and run some more.

Altogether, they ran a franchise-record 521 times in the regular season. In the process, they've become nirvana for the Panthers' offensive linemen, who love the thrill of run-blocking for a power back like the 6-foot, 230-pound Davis.

"We run from every formation and personnel group there is," Mitchell said. "As far as our mentality, I think that really developed when we got an effective back like Stephen Davis back there. We were able to gain confidence, and with the confidence came the mentality."

The Panthers know there will be rough moments against the indomitable New England defense, which allowed 89.6 rushing yards per game, fourth best in the league. But they also know that Henning will keep calling Davis' number, regardless of however many 2- and 1-yard runs they have.

"That's an attitude you can give to Coach Henning," said left tackle Todd Steussie. "Because it's not always easy as an offensive coordinator when the run doesn't work the first couple times to stick with it.

"You get two or three yards, maybe a minus carry or something like that, but you don't get too many of those with Stephen. It takes the resolve of the offensive coordinator to know what he's doing and then those 2-yard runs start popping into four, seven, 12, and then it's easy."

Even the loss of Davis to a leg injury early in the overtime playoff win against the St. Louis Rams didn't slow down the Panthers' running game. DeShaun Foster picked up the slack with 95 tough yards. A week later, with Davis still gimpy, Foster ran for 60 yards and one big touchdown in the NFC championship triumph at Philadelphia against the Eagles.

Davis has since recovered from a strained left quadriceps muscle, but Foster gives the Panthers the element of speed with power.

"You will not lose anything with either of us in the game," Davis said. "[Foster] is a guy that runs just as hard as I do."

Davis can hit up inside the line or swing wide on Carolina's stretch play. He got outside for 64 yards on a stretch play in the game at St. Louis when he hurt his leg.

"He is so patient," Mitchell said of Davis. "When the hole is there, he hits it really fast and really hard. There are times when he goes past me when I'm afraid if my arm's out, it's going to get ripped off.

"It's fun for us to know when [the opposition] has to tackle Stephen, it's a job and it's going to hurt."

Moving up

With the addition of running back Stephen Davis and quarterback Jake Delhomme, the Panthers' offense has prospered significantly this season. Here's the dramatic jump:

Off. category ........... 2002 ......... 2003 ......... Net gain

Rushing yards ......... 99.1 ......... 130.9 ............ +31.8

Passing yards ........ 168.4 ......... 190.4 .............. +22

Total yards ............ 267.5 ......... 321.3 .......... + 53.8

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