HOUSTON - Steve Spurrier, like Frank Sinatra in a visor, was going to do it his way. His college-bred “Fun-n-Gun” offense would work in the NFL. He would prove its genius and his own.
A bruising, straight-ahead runner, even one of the best in the game, and especially one with a salary that stretched the cap, was neither fun nor the right kind of gun to Spurrier. Stephen Davis was a puzzling extravagance he could live without.
To the Carolina Panthers, Davis was the key piece of the puzzle that has culminated in a Super Bowl berth opposite New England on Sunday.
Carolina coach John Fox knows as gospel one thing that Spurrier never figured out before flinging his visor and hands into the air in surrender and abdicating his Redskin throne. You can't win in the NFL, regardless of offensive philosophy, without a running game. And you certainly can't survive as a defensive-oriented, ball-control team without a horse.
Spurrier's cast-off has become Carolina's champion Thoroughbred. And while Davis may insist he's not bitter over being released by Washington, he didn't hesitate to take a little shot yesterday.
Stephen Davis, underused by Steve Spurrier at Washington, gained 1,444 yards on 318 carries this season for Carolina.
CHUCK BURTON / AP Enlarge
When asked about his favorite play, he said it was catching a pass out of the backfield on fourth down and turning upfield for 25 yards.
That was a two-for-the-price-of-one answer. Spurrier never was much for throwing to backs, and that particular fourth-down reception came late in a game last November against Washington. A few plays later, with 1:05 on the clock, Davis ran the ball in from three yards out to give the Panthers a 20-17 win. Davis accounted for 132 yards of total offense that day. Spurrier's entire offense managed 204 yards.
If that wasn't Davis getting the last laugh, the Super Bowl surely is.
In his one year under Spurrier Davis got 150 fewer rushing attempts than during the previous season. Despite gaining only 820 yards he still had amassed 4,975 yards since the start of the 1999 season - the second-best total in the NFC - at the time he was released.
“I just wanted to get somewhere where I'd have an opportunity,” said Davis, whose services, oddly enough, were not all that highly sought on the open market. “I visited Carolina and coach Fox, and [offensive coordinator] Dan Henning said they were going to run the ball. Coach Fox said I'd get all the carries I could want, and then some. I wanted to be a part of that.”
And run it they do. Davis got 318 carries during the regular season and produced a career-best 1,444 yards. Young DeShaun Foster, his much-used understudy, had 113 carries for 429 yards.
“He runs as hard as I do,” Davis said of Foster. “You will not lose anything with either of us in the game.”
The Patriots have noticed.
“Stephen is one of the most physical running backs in the NFL and he just punishes defenders,” said New England linebacker Roman Phifer. “Teams know that either Davis or Foster is going to get the ball, yet nobody is able to stop them. You face those guys, you have to bring your hard hat.”
Pats linebacker Willie McGinest said the key to Sunday's game “is whether or not we can stop their running game. Stephen Davis has been a great acquisition. I still don't understand how or why Washington could get rid of him. He runs hard and he opens things up for the passing game.”
You have to think Joe Gibbs, the new-again Redskins coach, would love to have Davis back. But Davis belongs to Fox and the Panthers with a contract that pays him at least $3.2 million a year for four more years.
We say at least because it is an incentive-laden pact. In fact, it is estimated that Davis has already cashed upwards of $3 million in incentive bonuses this season. If the Panthers win the Super Bowl, Davis has another healthy bonus in store. If he's the game's MVP they might have to open a new mint to cover it.
He is a far cry from the near-broken man who had to be almost forced to stand on the sideline during his last game with the Redskins.
“I was injured and I didn't even want to go to the stadium,” Davis said. “I knew it was probably my last game with the Redskins and it was the lowest point of my career.”
A year later the Panthers couldn't keep him off the field one week after suffering a painful quadriceps injury in a second-round playoff game at St. Louis. (He had 86 yards on just six carries when he was sidelined.) Davis returned for the NFC title game in Philadelphia and, although at far less than 100 per cent, led the team with 76 yards on 19 carries.
Shrugging off that malady, as well as arm and ankle injuries that sidelined him for two full games earlier in the year, the 29-year-old Davis is now set for perhaps his toughest test against a New England defense that has limited opponents to less than 90 yards per game on the ground this season.
“There's still plenty left in my tank,” Davis said. “I'm with Carolina for a reason. Last season I wasn't having any fun. I'm having fun again now and doing the things that I can do to help this team win. We're in the biggest game of the season. I'm not done yet.”