DeAngelo Williams Roaring Into Relevance
By Blake Baxter
The Carolina Panthers only have one win in the 2013 NFL season, but the team's spirits are high heading into Week 5. The Panthers are two weeks removed from their overwhelming 38-0 victory over the New York Giants and they had a much-needed bye week to recuperate. It has undoubtedly been a bumpy road for Carolina, as the team has struggled with injuries, particularly in the secondary. The most notable in-season injury was losing crucial safety Charles Godfrey for the season to a torn Achilles, but the Panthers health issues started before the season even began. To be more specific, a couple of these key injuries left Carolina pretty thin in the backfield. This forced the Panthers to put the ball in the hands of an aging running back far more often than would be considered ideal. However, to nearly everyone’s surprise, DeAngelo Williams has displayed a surprising return to form.
NFL running back is often a perilous and punishing occupation. The same could be said for an NFL player in general. The average career of an NFL player is just 3.3 years while the average career of an NFL running back is even shorter. In fact, of all the positions, running back – at 2.57 years – is the shortest average career. The running back takes the most hits, and often the most vicious ones too. As players have become bigger, faster and stronger, NFL teams have shifted towards splitting carries between a platoon, rather than consistently handing the ball off to an every down back. There are a lot more guys like Atlanta's Jacquizz Rodgers in the league than Minnesota's Adrian Peterson. Usually, good running backs shine brightly in their first few seasons and then burn out and unceremoniously disappear. Once you see a guy’s number peak and start to decline, it is a pretty good bet that he is not coming back. And, if he gets hurt, then the odds are even worse.
Williams looked to be having a fairly typical career for an NFL running back. He was a highly touted prospect before being drafted in the first round out of the University of Memphis in 2006. In his first two seasons, he was a strong backup for solid starter DeShaun Foster. In 2008, he became the starter and split carries with rookie RB Jonathan Stewart. That season and the next, Williams was one of the most productive rushers in the NFL. He saw limited action in 2010 after suffering a foot injury, but still inked a lucrative five-year contract extension. In 2011, Williams continued to split carries with Stewart, but talented rookie QB Cam Newton also had his fair share of rushes. The three-headed rushing attack was successful for Carolina – the Panthers led the league in rushing – but also suggested Williams was not as valuable as he once was to the team. And then, Williams was benched in favor of Stewart midway through last season. At the ripe age of 30, Williams looked to be a fading talent.
Going into the 2013 season, the Carolina backfield featured Williams, Stewart, FB Mike Tolbert and speedy newcomer Kenjon Barner. It was not exactly a juggernaut, but there were enough options to assume that the Panthers could piece together a running game that would suffice. However, their choices were limited when Stewart continued to be plagued by an ankle injury that had been nagging him since last season. Williams, with the rookie Barner, was going to have to carry the load until Stewart’s return midway through the season. That was the plan until Barner sprained his foot in the last preseason game of the season.
From the very first game, Williams has looked rejuvenated in his return to the starting spot. He has looked like a man with something to prove, a man not content with the usual narrative of an NFL running back. After three games, Williams was third in the NFL in total rushing yards with 291 for an average of 4.7 yards per carry on 62 attempts. His most impressive game, fittingly, came in the team’s overpowering performance against the Giants. Williams looked like the imposing feature back of 2008, recording 120 yards and averaging 5.2 yards per carry in the win.
This Sunday, the Panthers face the Arizona Cardinals, and Barner is expected to return to make his professional debut. His speed and youth could be valuable for the Panthers going forward. Stewart should also be back within a couple weeks. But as long as Williams is playing this well, both younger players will have to fight and scrap to take carries away from the proven veteran.