- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 13, 2003

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Perhaps the biggest tradeoff for the Washington Redskins in hiring Steve Spurrier is that it probably cost the franchise its best running back since John Riggins.

Stephen Davis, a tailback in a fullback’s body, was the equivalent of a square peg in the round hole of Spurrier’s Fun’n’ Gun offense. After only one unproductive season in Spurrier’s pass-happy offense, Davis was released in favor of guys like Trung Canidate, Ladell Betts and Rock Cartwright, the latest Redskins starting running back.

Add your grumble here, Redskins fans.

Spurrier yesterday attributed Davis’ departure to the fact he would have cost the Redskins $11.4million under this year’s cap, not the popular belief that Spurrier couldn’t — or was unwilling — fit him into his offense.

“Business-wise, our management didn’t think that was a good deal,” Spurrier said. “I don’t know what Carolina paid him, but if he’s worth that he’s going to make $10million next year I guess. He’s certainly having a big year.”

Davis, who will face the Redskins on Sunday at Ericsson Stadium, chuckled at Spurrier’s explanation.

“That’s him. That’s him,” Davis said. “Contract numbers, whatever. I was a guy that given the opportunity could have made the best of my opportunity. Ain’t no telling what could have happened last year. Now I’m here making the best of my opportunities. I’m glad to be here. It’s a great group of guys here that embraced me and welcomed me with open arms.”

Asked if he felt it was the contract or the offensive system that led to his release by the Redskins, Davis replied, “If he started talking about the contract when he first started doing his conference call, yeah, it had to be the contract. I really don’t know what it was. Contract or no contract, I have moved on now. It’s something that is in the past.”

This week, however, it’s all being brought back to the surface as the Redskins prepare for Sunday’s game in Charlotte.

After his departure from Washington, Davis’ decision to sign with the Panthers was a no-brainer. He got a five-year, $20million deal that with incentives could exceed $36million. The only team other than the Panthers that attempted to sign Davis was the Houston Texans, but they backed off when they heard what the Panthers were offering.

For Davis, now 30, Carolina is home. He comes from Spartanburg, S.C., which happens to be where the Panthers hold training camp, about a 90-minute drive from Charlotte.

Carolina’s summer practice fields are about a 4-iron from the Wofford College football field, where Davis once ran for five touchdowns in the first half against a rival high school.

“I kind of smirked when I looked around. There are a lot of memories here. It’s good to be back,” Davis said this past July following his first day of training camp.

Davis relished the opportunity of playing in front of family — most of his still lives in Spartanburg — and playing in a Carolina offense seemingly constructed with his strengths in mind.

So far, everything has worked out beautifully, and Davis has become arguably Carolina’s best free agent acquisition since it joined the NFL in 1995.

Only nine games into the season, Davis already has established a single-season franchise record with six 100-yard games. He’s already fourth on Carolina’s all-time rushing list and needs 8 yards Sunday to become only the second back in team history to run for 1,000 in a season.

Before last weekend, Davis had accounted for better than 52 percent of the team’s offensive output and has the Panthers (7-2) on the verge of reaching the playoffs for the first time since 1996.

“I’m not surprised,” Davis said of his success. “I told everybody given the opportunity, you just go out there and make the best of it. I am making the best of my opportunity. I have an organization here that believes in me.”

In his eight games with the Panthers, Davis already has surpassed the 820 yards he gained last year under Spurrier. That’s nothing unusual for Davis, who averaged 1,385 rushing yards a year and 11 touchdowns in his first three Redskins seasons under Norv Turner, Terry Robiskie and Marty Schottenheimer.

Until last week, when he was forced to sit out against Tampa Bay with a sprained ankle, Davis had averaged 24 carries a game for 124 yards. This week he is listed as probable on the injury report.

“The only thing that would keep me out is my ankle, but I doubt very seriously it will,” Davis said.

The decision to hold Davis out of action last week was not easy for Panthers coach John Fox and didn’t exactly sit well with his veteran running back.

“I was sick about it,” Davis said. “My wife [DeeDee] told me not to come around her whenever I’m hurt again on game day.”

Predictably, Davis this week downplayed the revenge factor in facing the Redskins.

“I treat [all games] the same,” he said. “Sure, everybody thinks [I want revenge against the Redskins], but I get myself prepared during the week the same way.”

But when a reporter reminded Davis of his appearance on ESPN’s “Hot Seat” a couple of weeks ago where he said he wanted to run for three touchdowns and about 150 yards against the Redskins, Davis quickly corrected the questioner.

“Actually, I said 178 yards,” Davis said with a smirk.

Davis later said, “But it is [just] another game. That’s the type of person I am. I don’t try to make it more than what it really is. I’m just a football player that loves to play the game. It just so happens this week we’re playing my ex-team.”

His teammates aren’t buying that.

“No, I don’t believe him — not at all,” said center Jeff Mitchell, who played under Spurrier at Florida. “When it’s your old team and when it’s a coach who didn’t let you do what you do best, it’s got to come back and hurt his feelings a little bit.”

Publicly, Davis doesn’t seem to harbor any ill feelings toward Spurrier, even predicting he would turn out to be a “great coach in this league,” though he could come up with no solid reasoning to support that belief.

Davis remains tight with a handful of players on the Redskins roster and said he still roots for them every week. He said in talking with those players he senses plenty of frustration. Asked if that frustration is with Spurrier or with losing, Davis chose the latter.

“Anytime you lose you’re frustrated,” Davis said. “That’s what makes us pros. We bounce back.”

Given Carolina’s remarkable turnaround from last season’s 7-9 record, Davis is being touted as a league MVP candidate.

“I feel that am I having a good season personally,” Davis said. “But I am also helping my team win and that’s the most important thing.”

Washington fans might remember Davis as a shy, humble player. Not much has changed since his return home. Because of his hometown hero status and his success this season, Davis has done more interviews than in previous years. But that doesn’t mean he’s crazy about them.

“I’m still a private person,” he said. “The media … it’s OK. But I would rather go about my everyday business like I’ve been doing and just do my job. I get paid to play football. I’ve been doing a pretty good at it so far and now everybody wants to talk to me.”

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