- The Washington Times - Friday, September 1, 2000

The Washington Redskins still "Believe in Stephen."

The rallying cry during the Redskins' playoff run last season, running back Stephen Davis remains the principal player in Washington's bid for the Super Bowl as they open the season against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday at FedEx Field.

The offseason spending spree for cornerback Deion Sanders (a $56 million package), offensive tackle Chris Samuels ($47 million), linebacker LaVar Arrington ($33.6 million) and defensive end Bruce Smith ($25 million) helped create the NFL's first $100 million payroll, but the Redskins are truly relying upon Davis to move the chains. Davis is the one who dominates defenses while keeping fans on their feet and championship hopes alive.

Passing coordinator Terry Robiskie said "100 percent of the passing game's [success], all of it" comes from Davis' between-the-tackles runs. After all, he gained a team-record 1,405 yards in 13 and 1/2 games last year before missing the final 2 and 1/2 games with a sprained ankle. Davis earned a Pro Bowl trip, the team's Most Valuable Player award and an NFC Offensive Player of the Week for his 183 yards against the New York Giants.

"If we're running the ball effectively like we were able to do last year it opens everything," guard Keith Sims said. "It's harder to cover our receivers without safety help, but they have to move that safety up to stop the running game."

The Redskins were 4-2 when Davis gained more than 100 yards, but barely won the final two games as heavy favorites without him. Washington beat Detroit 27-13 in the playoff opening round behind Davis' 119 yards and two touchdowns, but lost 14-13 to Tampa Bay when he gained just 37 yards on 17 carries.

If teams "pass for show and run for dough" in the NFL, Davis is the money player.

"Consistency starts with the running game," coach Norv Turner said. "In our case, he's the guy that gets us going. If you can't run the ball at a real high level then you're a hit-and-miss group. You might throw for 400 [yards] and feel good about yourselves, but over 16 games if you don't have consistency running the ball then there's too many good defensive teams that can shut you down."

Ironically, Davis barely won the job last year over Skip Hicks after playing mostly fullback in 1998. Injuries curtailed several earlier chances, and the 1996 fourth-rounder was on the verge of becoming outdated. Not many running backs remain after four seasons if not starting or playing special teams, and Davis could have faded away. But Davis opened with his first career 100-yard game and two touchdowns against Dallas in the overtime loss followed by 126 yards and three touchdowns in a blowout win over the Giants. He became the offensive core afterward.

But was Davis a one-shot wonder or the next franchise cornerstone? The Redskins only offered a $5 million bonus on a long-term deal during the offseason when paying double for the two first-round selections. Team sources said the Redskins management worried Davis might be injury-prone after missing games in 1996 and 1997.

Davis held out three days before signing a one-year, $3.532 million deal. Contract talks have intensified over the past few days with a possible multiyear deal completed by opening kickoff. Yet, Davis leaves negotiations to agent Steve Weinberg and worries about counting on reserve center Mark Fischer and guard Jay Leeuwenburg to open his favorite lane.

"Sooner or later, the contract will get done," Davis said. "I don't know when, but it will get done. My main goal is to play football and everything else will take care of itself. [Weinberg] can talk about it, but he knows what I want. Go do it."

That's what the Redskins are telling Davis go do it … again.

"I think it's going to be a lot harder than it was last season," he said. "I have got a big bulls-eye on the front of my chest and a lot of teams are going to try to stop the run. I don't think [last year] was a high goal. It would make me happy if we accomplish our goals as a team and individually if I do better than I did last season."

After all, Davis knows where his teammates' confidence lies.

"I believe in myself," he said.

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