However you like to phrase it ("franchise", "feature", "premier", "every-down", etc.), the days of the lone trucker in the backfield has been over for a while. The Panthers figured that out during the John Fox era. Back when we made our Superbowl run after the 2003 season, we saw Stephen Davis' crushing, powerback style complemented by that of DeShaun Foster's more elusive, speedster-style of running. Between the two, they amassed 1,873 yards during the regular season.
The season had brutalized the then eight-year veteran, Davis, who followed the next season by only playing in two games. Foster was similarly hobbled and only managed to appear in four games after ending his season with a broken collar bone. Those who remember that season will recall we relied on Brad Hoover and Nick Goings as our answers in the backfield.
All that said, we learned a lot about running back rotations from our wear-and-tear woes. One guy simply can't do it all. Foster became the starter in 2005, and Davis served as the goal-line back. While Davis had a great season in that capacity with 12 touchdowns, and Foster had a respectable 879 yards rushing and 372 yards receiving, neither made it to the NFC Championship game against Seattle. Davis simply ran out of gas, and Foster broke his ankle in the playoff game against Chicago.
Enter DeAngelo Williams as our first-round (27th overall) pick in the 2006 draft.
Williams, a 5'9" speedster out of Memphis, (who still holds the Division I NCAA record for most career all-purpose yards (7,573) and 100-yard rushing games (34)) was the hopeful heir apparent to Foster's injury-plagued career. And, boy, did he ever show up.
Backing up Foster in his rookie season, Williams compiled respectable stats on the ground and through the air (501 and 313, respectively). He also managed to tally 623 yards on kickoff returns.
Foster remained the starter in the 2007 season, putting up another 800-plus yard season, but Williams was hot on his heels with 717 yards rushing and four touchdowns. Clearly his time to "get the call" was coming.
In 2008, with Foster out of the mix, and with the addition of another first-round running back named Jonathan Stewart, Williams put up 1,515 yards with 18 rushing touchdowns. His new buddy, Stewart, bruised his way to 836 yards and the goal line 10 times.
2009 would be become the year of "Double Trouble", with both "D-Will" and "Stewie" both running the ball for over 1,100 yards, a league record for a running back tandem.
An injured foot plagued Williams in the 2010 season. Not that he missed much, as his pal Stewart only managed 770 yards and two touchdowns due to non-stop eight-man boxes because of the Panthers' lack of an aerial threat. (Let's try and forget that debacle, shall we?)
This past year, in the first quarter of the season, Panthers fans wondered (and griped about) where our ground game had gone. This new kid, Cam Newton, and new Offensive Coordinator, Rob Chudzinski, seemed to want to chuck the ball 400 yards per game. That all ended in week five versus the Saints, when Williams put up 115 yards rushing, including an impressive 69-yard scamper for a touchdown.
While neither Williams' nor Stewart's season totals were eye-popping compared to their 2008 and 2009 campaigns, together they managed to combine for 1,597 yards on the ground and 11 rushing touchdowns. Both had a 5.4 yard per carry average. Stewart was the more prolific of the two in catches from their new quarterback (47-413-1). And lest we forget (like we really could) Cam Newton's ability to run the ball (706 yards) and put it in the end zone (14 touchdowns).
So, where do Williams and the now three-headed turf monster go in 2012? With the retaining of OC Rob Chudzinski, the team's head being fully wrapped around his playbook, and with a full set of off-season training, the possibilities are endless. Williams' status in the Panther backfield is solidified with the team after signing his monster contract before the 2011 season, and Stewart is surely guaranteed a new deal sometime this year.
And to think this ridiculously effective ground game was spawned when we realized the shelf life of an NFL running back was only about five years when run through the meat grinder 300 touches per season. Other teams have followed our example, but of the teams that have, none have seen the consistent productivity of our Carolina Panthers.