More Panthers: Observations from Spartanburg, S.C.
SPARTANBURG, S.C. – At some point, luck has to run a reverse.
It's not exactly scientific, but maybe karma is the best thing Foster has going his way. Four injury-marred years have finally delivered him to center stage in the Carolina backfield, and if he can stay healthy, the Panthers think he might surface as one of the league's best running backs.
Get used to those words "if" and "might." Because, like the poker player who rolls his last chip on the table and says a silent prayer, Foster is holding out for a major reversal of fortune.
"I'm still here," Foster said, giving a grin and shrugging his shoulders. "Eventually I knew this moment was going to come. It's what I've been waiting for."
The question about this moment – in which Foster has become the unquestioned starter – has everything to do with timing, specifically how much time Foster can go without suffering an injury. Nobody in the franchise pretends to know the answer. But if you want to know whether Foster can realistically be a marquee running back, someone is more than ready to preach to you like a Southern minister.
"About the last seven games of the season, when he [took over] in that Atlanta game when we played at home in early December, this guy was unbelievable," quarterback Jake Delhomme said of Foster's 131-yard breakout against the Falcons. "Especially going through the spring, watching all the film and the cutups … this guy played great."
"He can be top flight," offensive coordinator Dan Henning added. "He could be top five or six [in] rushing, and maybe even top four in overall yardage because he's a good receiver also. He's not just a one-down guy. But the issue with health is a big if. Guys that do those kinds of things statistically are very durable. They don't slow down at all."
And there it is. Foster's career caveat.
He's had his flashes of brilliance throughout his career, particularly in the playoffs – including a memorable bouncing 1-yard touchdown run in the 2004 NFC championship game against the Eagles and the 151 yards he dropped on the Giants in the wild-card round last January. But any success has always been tempered by health issues, with injuries to his knee, clavicle and ankle sending Foster to injured reserve in three of his four seasons.
Even heading into last offseason, it was a legitimate question whether the Panthers would cut ties and go after a running back that didn't have a history of fragility. The notion was fueled by Shaun Alexander practically blowing kisses to the Carolina organization at the Pro Bowl. But any internal debate didn't last long. Even with his health problems, Foster has always had his backers in the franchise, namely owner Jerry Richardson.
When free agency rolled around, the Panthers didn't see any other palatable options, eventually giving Foster a three-year contract worth $14.5 million. The deal included a $4.5 million signing bonus and incentives for another $3 million.
If Foster can fulfill the Panthers' belief that he is an upper-tier back, he'll get paid like one through 2008.
"We rolled the dice with it a little bit," coach John Fox said. "But when you looked through free agency, the guys at the top were old. At least DeShaun is young. Granted, he's been injured, but those were legitimate injuries. You either had to step up with the older guys, or go with Edgerrin James or Shaun Alexander, and there was quite a bit of cost difference. And we know DeShaun. He's a good kid and he operates well in our program."
The more prudent decision, the Panthers figured, was to follow a familiar design: Keep Foster and pair him with a younger player to groom in DeAngelo Williams, much like what they did with Foster and Stephen Davis in 2003. But the perception that Williams is there to swoop in and take Foster's job – or even split carries – isn't part of the plan.
"With the draft, you have to stay ahead of your football team," Fox said. "We need two backs. If we didn't re-sign DeShaun, we were going out and getting another back."
Fox was quick to point out the decision to draft Williams was a matter of precaution – not a red flag to signal Foster wasn't capable of being a featured guy.
"What I look at with DeShaun is this: Is the guy an impact player?" Fox said. "And when healthy, he's an impact player. He catches. He runs. He's a solid character guy. He blocks and protects. He can do it all. It's not a matter of whether he can do it or not. And with DeAngelo, anytime you go out and get a rookie, you really don't know."
Williams said he's more than happy to play second fiddle while learning the offense and picking up all the nuances Foster has shown him. "DeShaun's been great with teaching me the tendencies and things on the film. I'm just learning. I'm ready to contribute anywhere they want me," the rookie said.
As long as Foster can stay healthy, it's his stage. And he should benefit from some of the offseason pickups, particularly center Justin Hartwig and wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson. Interestingly, Henning suggested Johnson might have a bigger impact on Foster's game than Steve Smith's. Not only will Johnson give defenses another weapon to account for in the secondary, but he also has the blocking skills to make a significant impact on the running game.
"We've got a lot of pieces in the right place, but we need DeShaun to have a big season," Delhomme said. "I think he's ready to do it. And don't get me wrong. I love DeAngelo Williams. I think DeAngelo is going to be a special player. But I'm OK with that being a couple of years down the road.
"But for now, I really feel like this has to be DeShaun's show."