In 2008, the combo of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart hit the NFL rushing scene. Self-dubbed “Smash and Dash,” the first year full time starter Williams and the rookie Stewart combined to lead the NFL’s third best rushing attack.
As the year wore on, it became harder and harder to determine who was Smash and who was Dash. Both backs demonstrated the ability to run inside or out, around defenders or through them. And somewhere along the way, both managed to develop devastating stiff arms that sent linebackers and defensive backs alike pulling turf from their facemasks.
So, could 2009 be the Panthers’ year to capture the title of NFL’s Best Rushing Attack? Let’s take a look.
2008 was a record-setting year for the Panthers’ top two backs. Despite being ninth in the league in rushing attempts, Williams ended the 2008 season as the NFL’s third leading rusher with 1,515 yds, a Panthers franchise record. And his 18 rushing touchdowns? Tops among all running backs. (See Carolina Panthers' DeAngelo Williams Plays "Who Am I" With NFL Fans).
Jonathan Stewart set franchise records for rushing yardage by a rookie with 836 yds, and touchdowns with 10. Stewart’s 4.5 YPC was good for ninth in the league. But what’s behind them?
After finding himself relegated primarily to special teams in 2008, number three running back Nick Goings was released by the Panthers in the offseason. Goings’ release made way for 2009 fourth round pick Mike Goodson.
Goodson, the former Big 12 Freshman Of The Year, led the conference with 6.7 YPC before falling out of favor with his former coaching regimes. Goodson figures to finally give the Panthers a true change-of-pace back and a real third option behind Williams and Stewart.
And if the rave reviews Goodson has been receiving during training camp are any indication, the Panthers have definitely made an upgrade at their number three back. His speed and elusiveness have led scouts to label Goodson as a poor man’s Chris Johnson.
If Goodson is a fraction of that, he will be a key cog in the Panthers quest for the NFL’s best rushing attack.
With the continued development of Williams, a full year under Stewart’s belt, and a potential legitimate third back in Goodson, the Panthers’ running backs possess all the tools necessary for rushing greatness in 2009.
Anyone who follows the Carolina Panthers is familiar with the annual musical chairs routine played with the offensive line. In fact, every year since 2001, the Panthers have made changes to at least one, and in some years, all five positions...until now.
This year the buzzword for the Panthers’ offensive line is CONTINUITY.
For the first time in eight years, barring training camp injuries, the Carolina Panthers will start the same five offensive linemen at the same positions in back to back years.
While Pro Bowler Jordan Gross anchors the line at the left tackle position, budding star Jeff Otah holds down the right side of the line. This duo provides the Panthers with the two bookends they’ve been in search of for years. With former USC Trojan Ryan Kalil paving the way at center, the Panthers line up with three legitimate Pro Bowl-caliber linemen.
With the comfort and efficiency that comes with a year spent together in the trenches, and a seemingly perfect mix of Pro Bowl veterans and up-and-coming youth, this year’s O-line has the potential to be the best in franchise history. And the benefits to the running game? They become self explanatory.
While the Panthers have developed the reputation as a run-first team, recent years have shown their commitment to the run to be tenuous at best. Most of the temptation to stray from the run first attack can be chalked up to the freakish abilities of All-Pro wide receiver Steve Smith and his knack for outjumping, outfighting, and outrunning defenders.
However, the Panthers have always realized their greatest success when they demonstrate the ability to run the ball (see Stephen Davis and the run to Super Bowl 43). And Jake Delhomme’s horrific struggles in last year’s home playoff disaster against the Arizona Cardinals just may have cemented Coach John Fox’s desire to run, run, run.
With a career worst five INTs against the Cardinals, Delhomme sent the Panther staff into the offseason with something to ponder. Offensively, who are we?
The answer to that question can be found in the win-loss record of Jake Delhomme. When Delhomme attempts 29 or less passes, the Panthers are a remarkable 44-6. When Delhomme attempts 30 or more passes, the Panthers win-loss record plummets to 12-26.
The key to Delhomme being able to attempt less than 30 passes per game is the running attack. And chances are, with months of marinating in the juices of Jake’s 5 INT meltdown, Panther fans will see a steady dose of Williams, Stewart, and Goodson in 2009.
Last Year’s Best
The NY Giants, last year’s top rushing offense, lost 1,000 yard back and second leading rusher Derrick Ward to Tampa Bay this past offseason, leaving the Atlanta Falcons as the only team still intact this season that outrushed the Panthers in 2008.
The fact that Atlanta outrushed Carolina by only 6 total yards, despite carrying the ball 56 more times, provides confidence for the Carolina rushing attack and added evidence that the Panthers, pound for pound and yard for yard, have potentially the best rushing attack in the league.
2008 Top Five Rushing Attacks
What Does It All Mean?
While the play and play calling in past years may not suggest it, the Panthers are built to be a run-first team. Carolina has a quarterback who is at his best with a running game and a "manage the game" philosophy, tight ends who are asked to block first and catch second, a receiving corps that includes one of the league's best blocking wide receivers in Muhsin Muhammad, and a head coach who would love nothing more than to run the ball 35-40 times per game.
Couple this with what may be the greatest O-line and running back collection in franchise history, and perhaps more than just franchise records will fall for the Panthers in 2009.
Perhaps this will be the year that rushing greatness envelopes the Carolinas and its fans. Perhaps this is the year that NFL historians sit up and take notice of the Carolina Panthers and their ground-game dominance.
For this year's Carolina Panthers have the potential for rushing greatness.
Not just franchise greatness, but NFL greatness.
Can I get a witness?