- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 28, 2004

HOUSTON - The first answer was blunt and revealed nothing. Did Carolina Panthers running back Stephen Davis follow any of the scores (mostly losing) of the Washington Redskins, the team that cut him last spring?

“No,” Davis snapped yesterday.

The second answer, on the very next question, said it all right between the lines. Asked what part of his game makes him most proud, Davis paused.

“When the clock’s running down, catch a ball out of the backfield and run 25 yards downfield,” he finally replied. “Score a touchdown. I take a lot of pride in that.”

Davis turned to the first reporter and stared. Ouch. Super Bowl Media Day featured a couple thousand reporters and one thinly veiled shot at Davis’ former team. On Nov.16, of course, he crippled Washington with a 30-yard catch out of the backfield on fourth-and-1, then punched in the winning score from 3 yards out.

No matter what Davis says about putting his release behind him, deep down he knows the story of this glorious season always comes back to it. Forget that the cut, for salary cap reasons and his fit for then-coach Steve Spurrier’s offense, was so obvious it was considered a foregone conclusion for months. Every yard Davis gains, every win Carolina registers, count equally as Panthers points and Redskins demerits.

These days the points are piling up. Davis has gone from 820 yards under Spurrier to a career-high 1,444 yards and a third Pro Bowl invitation. Now healthy from a quadriceps strain that limited him in the NFC Championship game, Davis is the one Panther the New England Patriots absolutely must stop in Sunday’s Super Bowl XXXVIII at Reliant Stadium.

“He would have to be one of the most physical running backs in the NFL,” Patriots defensive end Roman Phifer said. “He’s punishing defenders. He’s the spark plug that kind of got Carolina going this year.”

Davis’ performance this year harkens back to his best days with the Redskins from 1999 to 2001, when he became the first back in franchise history to rush for 1,000 yards in three straight seasons. Of his 5,790 rushing yards in Washington, the third-highest total in club annals, 4,155 came in that three-year span.

A year under Spurrier, though, brought major questions. His 29th birthday passed three days after his release, and suddenly few believed Davis had much in the tank. Expectations of a $10million signing bonus and courtships from four or more teams evaporated.

“There were a lot of people out there saying Stephen Davis wasn’t Stephen Davis,” agent David Canter said yesterday by phone.

Carolina told Davis it hoped to get a shot late in his search for a new team. The offer Davis eventually worked out with the Panthers ended up being the only formal one he received, though the Houston Texans also demonstrated interest.

The numbers reflect the lack of demand. Davis’ Panthers contract is valued at five years, $16million with a $2.5million signing bonus. However, it is layered heavily with incentives now being cashed. Already Davis has picked up about $3million in extra pay, with the possibility of further payouts Sunday and in coming seasons.

“Where the deal gets exciting is right now,” Canter said.

What Davis calls a “perfect fit” with Carolina, however, has less to do with his contract and more to do with the situation. Davis got to play near his Spartanburg, S.C., home (where the Panthers hold training camp) and for a team committed to handing him the ball 25 to 30 times a game. Carolina coach John Fox, who faced Davis for years as the New York Giants defensive coordinator, sold Davis on the opportunity.

“I knew Stephen Davis was going to be what we were looking for,” Fox said. “There was no indication to me he had lost anything. I think he was a little bit of a victim of a change in philosophy.”

That change in philosophy stung Davis badly. He admitted yesterday that late in the 2002 season he scarcely felt like a part of the Redskins. Sidelined by injury in the finale against the Dallas Cowboys, he wondered why he even needed to be at FedEx Field.

“That was probably the lowest point of my career,” Davis said. “I didn’t really want to go to the stadium. Marvin Lewis and Hue Jackson convinced me to go. It was a learning experience. Everything happens for a reason.”

Perhaps Sunday’s biggest key is Davis’ matchup against the smart and fluid defense of Patriots coach Bill Belichick. While Belichick excels in devising ways to stop supposedly unstoppable players and units, particularly in big games, Davis has a well-deserved reputation for gaining yards when everyone knows he’s getting the ball.

“He never says die,” Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel said. “He carries the team on his shoulders. He looks for the team to call his number.”

With Davis’ 30th birthday looming March1, the obvious question is how many more years he can maintain that role. For that answer, another exchange yesterday with a reporter illustrates:

“You and your buddies in Washington always thought I didn’t have a lot left,” Davis told a Washington-area reporter. “What do you think?”

The reporter shrugged.


Two years.

“I got more than that,” Davis said confidently.

Doubt it? The Redskins know all too well how gambles against Davis can end.

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