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It was the first series of overtime at the RCA Dome in Sunday's game between two unbeaten teams, Carolina and Indianapolis. The Panthers faced third-and-one at their 36-yard line, and the home crowd was working itself into a frenzy. The last time Peyton Manning had gotten his hands on the ball, he had driven the Colts 91 yards for the tying touchdown. Give the ball back to Manning, Carolina had to figure, and the game was as good as lost.
So the 6-foot, 222-pound running back took the handoff and glided to the right, waiting for a hole to open. Indy linebacker David Thornton broke through, but the back slipped the tackle, shook free from defenders Walt Harris and Montae Reagor at the line of scrimmage and was stopped only after he had gained eight yards. Three plays later the back strung out the line again before dashing up the right side for 12 yards, putting Carolina in position for John Kasay's winning 47-yard field goal. Once again in this best start in club history, the back was the Most Valuable Panther in the game.
But this time it wasn't Stephen Davis who was doing the damage. It was 2002 second-round pick DeShaun Foster. His 139 yards—85 on 16 carries, 54 on two catches—were the difference in Carolina's 23-20 win over the Colts. Yes, the NFC's top-ranked rushing offense just got a little better. Foster, the former UCLA back who missed all of his rookie season after undergoing micro-fracture surgery on his left knee, had but 21 carries for 97 yards in Carolina's first four games. But when Davis, a free-agent pickup who has run for 641 yards this season, suffered a bruised right forearm in the third quarter on Sunday, Foster went to work.
It wasn't how many yards Foster gained but the way he ran for those yards that was so impressive. Foster is a savvy rusher, out of the Marcus Allen mold. Speed, quickness, leg drive and durability are vital characteristics of a great back, but none of those traits top Foster's list of qualities. "Patience is the most important attribute a running back can have," he says. "Running the ball is a cat-and-mouse game. I give my linemen time to set up the blocks. You have to be patient. Then the key is finding a crease."
Granted, Foster has had only one strong NFL game, and who knows if he can stay healthy—his knee still acts up, and he sat out a practice last Thursday in Charlotte because, he says, the knee started to ache when the weather cooled off. But on Sunday the Davis-Foster combination gave the Panthers a potent inside-out-side punch. The two backs combined for 215 yards rushing and receiving.
Carolina is not an NFL steamroller. The Panthers, with just one win by a double-digit margin this year, hang around because they are grounded in the running game and they play great defense. They don't make mistakes late in the game. Daring to last season, Carolina has won nine of its last 10 games. Foster is one more reason why the Panthers shouldn't be taken lightly.
Special Teams Troubles
General manager Ernie Accorsi saw a glaring weakness on the 2002 Giants—special teams—so he tried to fix it in the off-season. He spent $4.4 million in 2003 bonus money and salaries to sign three free-agent kicking-team specialists: long snapper Ryan Kuehl, kicker Mike Hollis and punter Jeff Feagles. Five weeks into the season Accorsi's best-laid plans were in tatters. Based on recent history, that should figure. "It's become like the Curse of the Bambino," Accorsi said last Friday. "You don't want to talk about it. You're afraid of feeding it more."
Having blown through eight long snappers in the preseason and regular season last year, New York lured Kuehl from the Browns with a $325,000 signing bonus. But after Dan O'Leary, the other long snapper in camp this summer, was injured, Kuehl was overworked and suffered nerve damage to his left elbow. He went on injured reserve on Aug. 30. Now the job belongs to Carson Dach, who was picked up on waivers. He's the Giants' 13th long snapper in 13 months.