One week of training camp was all Stephen Davis needed to see the benefits of signing as a free-agent running back with the Panthers. Every time he looked into the crowds at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., he saw his wife, Dee Dee, and their four children, who had rarely watched him practice during the seven seasons he spent with the Redskins. Hardly a day went by that he didn't bump into somebody who knew him. One morning when he trotted out of the locker room with quarterback Rodney Peete, Davis pointed to a small stadium at the end of a narrow street. That's where he played football for Spartanburg High.
That's what happens when you come home. Everything feels warmer and a bit more secure. And it's a good bet that Davis will be feeling plenty comfortable when the regular season begins. Ericsson Stadium in Charlotte is a mere hour and a half drive from the dream house he built in Columbia, S.C., two years ago. More important, Davis is returning to the role he enjoyed in Washington before Steve Spurrier brought his pass-happy Fun 'n' Gun offense to the Redskins last season.
Although Davis has been selected to two Pro Bowls and clearly was Washington's top offensive weapon in 2001, Spurrier had little use for him. Davis, a 6-foot, 230-pound workhorse who prefers 20 or more carries a game, averaged 17.25 an outing in '02 and gained only 820 yards. (He missed four of Washington's last nine games with a sprained right knee.) "I tell everybody that things happen for a reason," Davis says. "It was hard to deal with everything last year—not getting carries, getting ignored, dealing with a coach who didn't like my running style. But I grew from it. I plan on taking advantage of every chance I get here."
Davis won't have to worry about opportunities. The Panthers had the NFL's second-worst offense (267.5 yards a game) and ranked 25th in the league in rushing yards (99.1 per game) last season, and coach John Fox plans to rely heavily on Davis this year. Before taking over Carolina in January 2002, Fox spent five years as the Giants' defensive coordinator, so he knows from firsthand experience in the NFL East what Davis is capable of doing. "Stephen has that athletic arrogance that all great players have, and we need some of that in our offense," Fox says. "We knew his lack of production in Washington didn't result from a decline in his skills. It came from not playing or running as much. But he's our kind of back. There may be faster runners, but there aren't many who are as productive [in terms of carries]."
While Davis was the critical ingredient Carolina added to its offense, he wasn't the only pickup. Two free agents, guard Doug Brzezinski ( Eagles) and wide receiver Ricky Proehl ( Rams), should make immediate contributions, and first-round pick Jordan Gross will start at right tackle.
Fox says he's not planning to have a "three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offense," but he does want an efficient, effective unit. Carolina fielded the league's second-best defense in 2002 and, with a little help from the offense, might have finished better than 7-9. Three of the losses were by three points or fewer. "We had three games where we didn't even score in double digits," says left tackle Todd Steussie. "That's inexcusable. We know we're still not going to light up the scoreboard this year, but if we can win the time-of-possession battle, our defense can play fresh and fast. We definitely need to hold up our end of the bargain."
Davis agrees. If all goes according to plan, he should finish the year with around 350 carries. The thought brings a sly smile to his face. Everything is familiar again—his surroundings, his job description—and Davis thinks great things lie ahead for his team. "I've played eight years, and I know that running backs don't have long careers in this league," he says. "I wanted to be with a team that has a shot at making the playoffs and doing something when they get there. That's what we have here."
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