Panthers need to utilize RBs

DeAngelo Williams, left, and Jonathan Stewart led the NFL's most expensive backfield last season. Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

It’s Trivia Thursday, so let’s jump straight to the question.

What NFC South unit in 2012 was the most overpriced and underutilized, and helped get a general manager fired?

The answer is the Carolina Panthers’ backfield. Yes, in 2012, the trio of DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert was more useless and more expensive than even former Atlanta defensive end Ray Edwards.

That’s saying a lot because Edwards, who the Falcons dumped midway through last season, will go down as one of the all-time busts in division history. The difference is the situation with Edwards, who was messing with locker room chemistry, moved past the point where it could be repaired.

Carolina’s backfield still has a shot at redemption. A very good shot. For that to happen, though, coach Ron Rivera and his staff need to let Williams, Stewart and Tolbert be running backs, and let quarterback Cam Newton be a quarterback.

“That's something we have to work on," Rivera said when asked about his situation at running back during the recent NFL owners meetings. “We've been talking about that. We reviewed the season, looked at how things unfolded. We have to find a way to really be able to rotate those guys and make sure everybody's getting enough quality touches. We'll continue to try to develop it, because our running back position is loaded, and at the end of the year we had a lot of success with it. So, we've got to make sure we find the right formula."

The formula shouldn’t be that difficult to find, because the talent is there. Williams and Stewart are very good tailbacks (with first-round draft status and 1,000-yard seasons on their résumés) and Tolbert can make an impact at tailback and fullback. Rivera and his staff simply have to let Williams, Stewart and Tolbert run.

But that was a problem last season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Panthers used a league-high $15.3 million in salary-cap space on running backs. But Newton ended up leading the team in rushing, yards per rush, runs of 20 yards or more, and rushing touchdowns.

For reasons that never have been fully explained, the Panthers came out of the gate last year letting Newton run the read option and ignoring the power-running game. It would have been one thing if that was translating into wins, but it wasn’t.

The Panthers lost six of their first seven games, and general manager Marty Hurney was fired in October. It’s easy to look at the backfield and Carolina’s salary-cap situation and blame all the Panthers’ problems on Hurney.

But shouldn’t Hurney, Rivera and the rest of the coaching staff have been on the same page when Williams was given a huge contract coming out of the 2011 lockout, when Stewart was given a big extension last summer and when Tolbert was signed as a free agent from San Diego last offseason? Shouldn’t it have been automatic that all three would get plenty of touches?

That didn’t happen, and here’s another stat for you: The Panthers spent $12,179 per rushing yard by their running backs last season. Only Jacksonville ($12,402) spent more per yard, and the Jaguars finished 2-14.

The Panthers finished 7-9, but that’s only because they started to change their offense in the second half of the season. They won five of their final six games because they went back to the power-running game. Williams had 210 yards in the season finale against New Orleans.

Rivera and new offensive coordinator Mike Shula need to keep that in mind, or else they’ll end up following Hurney out the door. I’m not saying the Panthers need to go back to the John Fox days and bring back Nick Goings to run draw plays on third-and-long. But there needs to be a little balance to this offense.

I’m not saying the Panthers should completely scrap the read-option. Newton is a threat any time the Panthers even give a read-option look. But when Newton’s a threat too often, Williams, Stewart and Tolbert aren’t threats at all.

They’re way too talented to waste another season. Besides, Rivera, who barely survived last season, needs to win this year.

The way to do that is to let Williams, Stewart and Tolbert run. Newton can run a little from time to time to keep defenses off balance, but the guy has an incredible arm, and the Panthers need to let him focus on being a quarterback.

Let the running backs do the running, and everything else will fall into place.