Davis and Foster work together to form dangerous backfield in Carolina
Posted: Tuesday August 17, 2004 1:57PM; Updated: Tuesday August 17, 2004 2:30PM
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- What's up with all the sweetness in the Carolina Panther backfield? Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster sound clueless to the ways of the modern athlete. They're rivals who actually get along.
Most pro athletes you run across, especially big-time NFL running backs, have egos fatter than the dollars in their contracts. In their world, touches translate into yardage, glorious headlines and money, so sharing the football can be an occupational hazard. Then, you stumble upon Davis and Foster, freshly dubbed "The Two-headed Monster.''
If there's a brewing controversy or animosity early in training camp, you don't pick up on it. And there's good reason. They both know their place. After rushing for a franchise-record 1,444 yards last season, Davis remains the featured back, while the emerging Foster -- six years his junior -- knows his workload is due to increase.
That means less wear on the tires for Davis, who turned 30 in March. And it's another gradual step in Foster's comeback from the serious knee surgery that wiped out his rookie season in 2002.
So everyone is happy for now. During last season's Super Bowl run, which culminated in a 32-29 loss to New England, the upstart Panthers relied heavily on their talented backfield tandem. And if they come close to replicating that performance, Davis-Foster could easily emerge as the NFL's best 1-2 punch.
Davis made it back to the Pro Bowl last season after being deemed expendable by the Washington Redskins' former pass-happy coach, Steve Spurrier. Davis generated nearly 35 percent of the Panthers' offense. He racked up 318 carries, almost three times as many as Foster. But if both are healthy that disparity won't be as great, and Davis is cool with it.
Of course, life is good for Davis, a Spartanburg native. Training camp on the Wofford College campus is a homecoming. After a recent practice, he hopped into a silver Mercedes and drove off with his wife and mother. And there's certainly comfort being in the second year of a five-year deal reportedly worth $15.5 million.
So he can share -- at least a few carries.
"A lot of people may look at the situation and say it's not so good, but it's great,'' Davis says. "DeShaun is a younger guy. I'm an older guy. In the long run, it helps the both of us. It helps the team. It helps our game, 'cause we're competing.
"We're ballplayers and naturally we want the ball a lot. You want the ball every play. But the way you look at it is you got to make the best of your opportunity. I know I better do a pretty good job.''
It eases the tension that Foster is willing to apprentice in the No. 2 role, for now. But how long does he settle for being a "change of pace'' or third-down back? Foster flourished in the postseason last year, rushing for 196 yards -- including an electric 32-yard TD run in Super Bowl XXXVIII. And you have to think he could eventually be a starter in the league.
Foster is bold enough to tell you he isn't a scat back, and he is obviously irked by media references to that effect. In fact, he's listed at 6-foot, 222 pounds -- just eight pounds lighter than Davis, the power back. So how would Foster describe himself? As an every-down back.
The Panthers aren't in position to let him earn that tag yet, though they're definitely promising a larger role this year. They may even run him out on some kickoff returns.
"It's a good situation when you have two good backs,'' says Foster, conveying acceptance of his understudy role. "When it is one back you just got to game plan for him. If you got two people back there it's just harder. They're going to be focused in on Stephen and I can get in there, do what I got to do. And then they're going to focus in on me and then Stephen can get back in there and do his thing. It makes it harder on the defense to game plan. They really got to pay attention to who is in the backfield.''
The two-back deal has worked before, and will enjoy a nice ride here. In recent seasons, tandems like Warrick Dunn-Mike Alstott in Tampa and Tiki Barber-Ron Dayne in New York have enjoyed moderate success. Dunn finds himself in a similar time-share with T.J. Duckett in Atlanta this season. And you have to think Buffalo will go this route with Travis Henry and Willis McGahee.
One of the better tandems has been Rueben Mayes and Dalton Hilliard, who alternately shared Pro Bowl seasons in the late 1980s with the New Orleans Saints. Their mentor was none other than Jim Skipper, now the running backs coach at Carolina.
"Just like those two guys were different kinds of backs, we got the same thing here,'' Skipper says. "DeShaun is an all-around football player. You can split him out. He can catch the ball. He can do it all. And Stephen Davis is more of a power-type back with deceiving speed.''
There's no talk, however, of splitting carries, and for now Davis can expect the heavier workload. His powerful inside running is huge in setting up the play-action pass, as well as protecting a late game lead. Foster is more the speedy playmaker who, along with spelling Davis, has added value if the Panthers fall behind and have to open up the offense.
"In our situation, we will always have a fresh back,'' Skipper says. "So the guy doesn't carry the ball five times and on the sixth play he's taking a break. And the minute he takes that break is an opportunity when he could have gone the distance but he is too tired.
"So a guy doesn't have to save anything in his tank, cause we got a situation where we're giving it all out every snap.''
That's obviously the best situation, if everyone stays happy.
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.