- The Washington Times - Monday, November 17, 2003

CHARLOTTE, N.C.

Now that he has extracted his revenge against the Redskins, perhaps Stephen Davis can get on with his life — get on with leading the NFC in rushing and going to the Pro Bowl and possibly even carrying the Carolina Panthers to the Super Bowl.

His demeanor all season has been “a little bit surly,” according to a media source here. It’s as if he wanted to hang on to his anger toward his old team as long possible, to use it as an emergency fuel source whenever fatigue came knocking.

Make no mistake, Davis said after Carolina’s 20-17 victory over the Redskins at Ericsson Stadium, “It was personal, very personal.” No player likes being discarded by a club he has risked life and limb for, certainly not a running back who has had the top two rushing seasons in franchise history. Davis gained 1,432 yards two years ago, 1,405 in 1999 and 1,318 in between, but all that was forgotten when Steve Spurrier brought his rootin’, tootin’ Fun ‘n’ Gun to Washington. “Who needs a credible running attack in the NFL?” the Ball Coach and his enablers decided. “We’ll just pass ‘em into submission.”

So after marginalizing Davis for a season, a season in which injuries finally caught up with him, the Redskins cut him and his hefty contract loose, opting to spend their cap dollars on the likes of Laveranues Coles and Randy Thomas. Well, that isn’t turning out to be the brainstorm of the century, is it? In yesterday’s game, Coles had four catches for 35 yards, and the Redskins offense was held to 181 overall (a meager 3 yards per snap). Davis, meanwhile, totaled 132 yards from scrimmage (92 rushing, 40 receiving) and was the man around whom everything revolved for Carolina offensively.

Indeed, when you analyze it, what we basically saw was a game between a team with a bona fide ball carrier and a team without one, a team that thinks such weaponry is mere frivolity. And guess which club won? The club that believes that football is still a game played in the dirt, that pretty passes are swell but balance is still the key to success in the NFL.

Davis impacted this game in so many ways large and small. Even when he didn’t have the ball in his hands, he was a major factor. For instance, Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme dropped back 30 times without once being sacked (while his counterpart, Patrick Ramsey, was dragged down thrice and smacked around on a number of other occasions). This is one of the benefits of having a first-rate running back, a back the defense has to account for on every play. It’s hard for your opponents to mount much of a pass rush when they’re forced to be so run-conscious.

Now let’s look at Delhomme’s biggest completions. Five of them — for 28, 37, 30, 22 and 40 yards — came on first down, usually preceded by a run fake to No. 48. First down is Davis’ down. And because the Redskins had to respect him, they left themselves open to big plays downfield.

“Running the football does that for you,” Carolina coach John Fox said. “It’s why we emphasize it. When teams are playing eight-man fronts and one-deep coverages [to stop the run], it gives you a chance to make big plays.”

Davis also figured in both Carolina touchdowns. The first, a 1-yard bootleg by Delhomme, was made possible because most of the Washington defense gravitated toward Stephen, convinced he was going to get the handoff. Delhomme ran in untouched. The second Panthers TD, the game-winner, came on a standard Stephen Davis 3-yard smash, the kind he scored on umpteen times for the Redskins (and followed his huge 25-yard reception on fourth-and-1 at the Carolina 38). Spurrier’s offense doesn’t really have anybody who can reliably slug it in from inside the 10 — and the Redskins have repeatedly paid for it.

It would hardly be stretching things, moreover, to give Davis primary credit for Carolina’s two scoring drives in the fourth quarter, one resulting in a field goal, the other in a touchdown (his). A defense that yields drives of 72 and 71 yards in the final 10 minutes is generally a tired defense, and in this case it was worn out by Stephen’s constant hammering. Twenty-eight times the Panthers sent him into the line; and like a wave crashing against the shore, he gradually wore the Redskins down.

With the last touchdown came a kind of closure for him. “Closing the door to my past,” was how he put it. “I’m glad it’s all over — all the questions about the Redskins and how I feel about them. … My teammates had my back on this. They knew how important it was — to us and to me.”

Whether Davis’ performance gave Spurrier any insight into What It Takes to Win in the pro game is anyone’s guess. “He’s an excellent back, we know that,” the Ball Coach said of his former ball carrier. If he really feels that way, though, why didn’t he make room for Stephen in the Fun ‘n’ Gun? This running back-by-committee approach has worked about as well as the Red Sox’s bullpen by committee. And it’s one of the main reasons Ramsey has absorbed more shots than George Chuvalo.

The day wasn’t perfect for Davis in every respect. On his first carry, an 8-yarder around the left side, he fumbled the ball away and put his club in an immediate bind. (Fortunately for him, the Redskins fumbled the ball right back.) “At the beginning of the game, I was nervous,” he said. “… It was emotional.”

Everything worked out in the end, though. The 8-2 Panthers continued their march to the playoffs — and perhaps even the home field advantage in the NFC — and the 4-6 Redskins continued their descent to who-knows-where.


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