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Carolina's Rushing Attack Fails To Pack A Punch

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Carolina RBs Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert need to hit the ground running in 2013 to provide some clarity in what has become a very muddled backfield. Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images.
Carolina RBs Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert need to hit the ground running in 2013 to provide some clarity in what has become a very muddled backfield. Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images.

The dominant trends and fads present in sports, like many things in life, have a tendency to come and go in cycles. Everyone thought defenses won championships until super powered offenses became the norm in the NFL. But do not be surprised if the tide of public opinion turns when a defensive juggernaut like the Houston Texans start off the season 10-0. 20 years ago, the NBA was loaded with talent, defense and high top fades. Eventually though, the superstars began to retire, the game started revolving around offense and the high top fades morphed into cornrows. In 2013, the NBA is the most star-studded league of the four major sports, the two best defensive teams faced each other in the NBA Finals and the flattop has been resurrected. Even baseball cards are making a bit of a comeback, albeit digitally.

In the NFL, the importance of the running back has been a subject of debate for quite a while now. More specifically, the question is not about if it is important to have a good running back - the question is how many should you have? Once upon a time, workhorses like Emmitt Smith, Marshall Faulk and LaDanian Tomlinson carried the load for their respective teams while dominating the league. But as teams saw the careers of feature back after feature back fade quickly due to injuries and too many hits to the head, they began to diversify to whom they gave carries. By the mid to late 2000s, running back platoons of two to three quality backs made up a large portion of the league. But recently, old school downhill runners like Adrian Peterson and Alfred Morris have made some questions the paradigm. Can you still survive with one all-purpose, do-everything back like Peterson? Is Peterson merely an outlier to an evolutionary trend, or is he a sign that platoons are going to begin cycling out?

The Carolina Panthers were among the first teams to adopt the running back by committee approach. For a couple of seasons during the mid-2000s, RB DeShaun Foster was an understudy to Panthers fan favorite Stephen Davis before becoming a starter and eventually the mentor to fellow rusher DeAngelo Williams. Williams entered the mix in 2006 and immediately showed promise that he could take over for Foster down the road. In 2008, the Panthers released Foster seemingly to open the door for Williams to become a starter and a top running back in the league. However, that April, Carolina selected Jonathan Stewart, a highly touted running back out of Oregon, in the first round of the draft. It proved to be a brilliant move the following season.

During the 2008 season, Williams had his breakout season, accumulating 1,515 yards and 18 touchdowns, good enough for All Pro honors while the Stewart added 836 yards and 10 touchdowns for an average of 5.1 yards in his rookie season. The duo led the Panthers to a division title for the first playoff berth in three years. The next year, the platoon reached its peak, even as QB Jake Delhomme fell apart and the team tanked. Regardless, Williams and Stewart became the first running back duo to each run for 1,100-plus yards. That season, Stewart eclipsed Williams in rushing yards, but it was Williams who was selected to play in the Pro Bowl.

Three full seasons have passed since Williams and Stewart tore up every defense that tried to contain them in 2009. The Panthers have since changed just about every aspect of their personnel. Long gone are Delhomme, head coach John Fox, offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson and nearly all of the receivers. And yet, Williams and Stewart remain the top Carolina running backs. The problem is that in recent years, the duo has not been as potent as it once was and that is putting it lightly. In fact, over the past two seasons, QB Cam Newton has been nearly as effective at rushing. In 2011, Williams recorded 836 yards, Stewart recorded 761 yards and Newton came in not too far behind with 706. Last season, the Panthers finished in the top 10 in rushing yards, but it was Newton – the quarterback, mind you – who led the team in rushing with 741 yards.

It is pretty clear that the Panthers are going to need more production from their backfield if they want to improve from last year’s 7-9 season. But from where is it going to come? A year ago, the team added San Diego’s running back/fullback Mike Tolbert with the hope that he could do a little bit of everything. Tolbert, however, finished the season with a disappointing 183 rushing yards and caught 27 passes for 268 yards, far removed from his 2011 totals (490 rushing yards, 54 receptions for 433 yards). The Panthers selected the speed demon and former track star Kenjon Barner out of Oregon in the sixth round of the draft and they also still have third-year reserve Armond Smith, but both are very inexperienced.

Nonetheless, new offensive coordinator Mike Shula and the Panthers have stated that they are committed to relying on their running game more often this season. They leaned heavily on it during their four game win streak to close the 2012 season and they carried that momentum into the preseason. The Panthers handed the ball off on 30 of 63 offensive plays last Friday in a victory over the Bears.

The Panthers are now hoping that the end of last season and the preseason game are not tease. Whether or not the premier running back is experiencing a renaissance in the NFL is not being considered in Carolina. The Panthers will have to mix and match their backfield to see if they can recreate the magic that their platoon once had.

Their success could depend partially on how much young guys like Barner – who demonstrated his explosiveness and speed on Friday but was the cause of two turnovers – can contribute. The rest will depend on what the Panthers can get out of veteran rushers Williams and Tolbert, as Stewart is already on the physically unable to perform list. If it is not enough, then Newton will be shouldering the burden. Even as good as he is, that is the last thing that the Panthers want this season.