Williams, Stewart running on supreme fuel

Carolina running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart split carries last season and both eclipsed 1,100 yards rushing. US Presswire, Getty Images

This really happened and I’ve still got the tape to prove it.

During a winter in which everyone has been bashing coach John Fox and GM Marty Hurney, there actually is someone singing their praises. It’s Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams.

“I think the front office and coaching staff are single-handedly prolonging my career and (Jonathan Stewart's) career,’’ Williams said a few weeks ago when he was attending festivities at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

Yes, praise for Fox and Hurney, the same two guys who have had their sanity questioned after letting Julius Peppers walk away as a free agent, releasing quarterback Jake Delhomme and parting ways with just about every player over 30 years old. Aside from kicker John Kasay and punter Jason Baker, wide receiver Steve Smith and defensive end Tyler Brayton are the only Panthers over 30.

“Thirty is like the new 50 in the NFL, especially when it comes to tailbacks,’’ Williams said.

Williams is 26 and will turn 27 on April 25. He’s also one of the smartest and most observant players in the NFC South. But that sometimes goes unnoticed because Williams often tries to keep a low profile with the media.

That day at Disney was different, though. Williams was letting it flow and his wisdom and philosophies are something that should be shared more often. Williams talked at length about Carolina's two-headed backfield, sometimes called “Double Trouble’’ or “Smash and Dash.’’

He put it into a perspective that you don’t often hear, but it’s the perspective Fox and Hurney hold and it’s why they believe so strongly in a two-back system.

“We’re each about 220 or 230 carries a year,’’ Williams said. “I’d rather have that than 300-plus carries a year. That wears on your legs and you’re not going to last long doing that. With me and Jonathan back there and sharing it the way we do, that’s a real treat and neither one of us is going to get worn out.’’

Williams is pretty accurate in his numbers. Last season he carried 216 times for 1,117 yards and seven touchdowns. Stewart carried 221 times for 1,133 yards and 10 touchdowns. Williams missed three games because of injuries, but said that didn’t really have a big impact on the carry totals for him and Stewart.

“It’s going to be close to a 50-50 split no matter what," Williams said. “That’s what the coaching staff and the front office wants and it’s also what Jonathan and I want. It’s good for both of us. We’re at our best when it’s that way."

Funny that Williams realizes that when some running backs with more ego and some Carolina fans can’t quite grasp the fact that less is more in this situation. Williams is a restricted free agent this year. He’s carrying the highest tender and that means the Panthers would receive a first- and a third-round pick as compensation if another team were to sign Williams away.

With the Panthers not holding a first-round pick this year, a lot of Carolina fans started throwing out rumors or theories that the Panthers should let Williams go and pick up some more draft picks. Even if an offer sheet comes from another team, that’s not going to happen. The Panthers can match any offer and they’re not letting Williams go anywhere.

In fact, there have been reports that the Panthers are working to sign Williams to a long-term contract. Nothing has happened on that yet, but don’t be surprised if something gets done before too long.

The recent purge of veterans has left a lot of Carolina fans questioning the sanity of Fox and Hurney. But the way they use Williams and Stewart as a tandem should be Exhibit A that the coach and general manager have a long-term plan in place. They saw a running back get used too much one season and break down the next.

That was Stephen Davis, who carried the Panthers to the Super Bowl in the 2003 season. After that, the carries and age caught up to Davis and he never was the same again. Williams and Stewart already have dealt with some minor injuries and part of the master plan is to be very careful not to overuse them and the other part of that plan is to keep them together for the long haul.

“It’s easy to say that either one of us could run for 1,500 or 1,600 yards if we were getting more than 300 carries," Williams said. “But that’s not really true. We’re best the way we are because we can keep doing what we’re doing every year for a long time. Yeah, if you went with just one of us for one year, you might get 1,500 or 1,600 yards. But you might have a broken down car the next year and we’d both be done by the time we’re 30, which is still a ways down the road for both of us. The way it is now, is perfect for both of us."

Williams and Stewart both had surgeries after the season. Williams had his right ankle cleaned up. Stewart had some work done on his foot. Both are expected to be fully healthy for training camp. And, contrary to some of the fan-generated rumors out there, both are expected to be back in Carolina.

The Panthers haven’t revealed their exact plan for going on after their purge of veterans. They’ll be going with a new quarterback, Matt Moore, and they’re likely to be looking for wide receiver help in the draft or what’s left of free agency.

But there’s going to be one constant on the offense. Williams and Stewart are going to remain the focal points and they’re going to keep doing that with a healthy split of carries.

“I don’t want to be one of those tailbacks that’s washed up at 30,’’ Williams said. “I think, in the system we have, I can be productive for a few years past 30. I’m not there yet and we’ll find out for sure in a few years. But, right now, I love what we’re doing. Jonathan and I both have low mileage on our cars and that’s great. We’re running on supreme and the gas is cheap right now. We’re going to enjoy the ride.’’