CHARLOTTE, N.C. – It's a Tuesday afternoon, and Carolina Panthers wideout Steve Smith is hunched over in a locker-room chair, rubbing his beard and aggressively demonstrating a point to a visitor. Down the line, quarterback Jake Delhomme is recalling the first time he met Arizona Cardinals counterpart Kurt Warner, when the two were battling it out for a starting job in NFL Europe.
Across the way, DeAngelo Williams is spinning tales for a rapt media throng, counting down the best offensive plays of the season. Fellow running back Jonathan Stewart makes the list. Williams talks about tight end Dante Rosario, and of course, Delhomme and Smith.
Amidst it all, receiver Muhsin Muhammad stands in the middle – soaking in another one of those precious January moments. He cracks a smile when someone asks him if this is why he came back to the Panthers in the first place.
"Not quite yet," said Muhammad, whose Panthers play hosts to the Cardinals in an NFC divisional contest Saturday night. "This is definitely the start of it."
The start of what has yet to be realized, but the upwardly mobile pieces surrounding the 35-year old wideout have Carolina recalling the balance of the 2003 Super Bowl team. With a talented core of offensive linemen in their 20s, a beautifully matched tailback tandem that hit its stride two months ago, and a veteran complement of Smith, Muhammad and Delhomme, this is arguably the best offensive unit in franchise history – even more talented than that Super Bowl unit, which went on the road to bounce St. Louis and Philadelphia out of the playoffs, then pushed the Patriots to the brink in the championship.
This year's team scored the second-most points (414) in franchise history, behind only the 421 put up in 1999.
"There's no doubt it's the best offense we've had since I've been here as a head coach, if you look at the production level," said Fox, hired as head coach in 2002. "A lot has gone into that. We injected quite a bit of talent into that group that I think has worked out well, and they've worked out well. There are no guarantees in personnel acquisitions, but [players] have blended well. I think [coordinator] Jeff Davidson and the offensive staff have done a terrific job. We've been able to maintain the balance that I think is important."
In hindsight, that balance was struck when the Panthers put together one of the best offseason runs in talent acquisition since Fox took over. Muhammad, who had been a favorite of Fox before being released and signing with the Bears in 2005, was signed in February to pair with Steve Smith. This despite waning production in Chicago which had many thinking he'd faded into a third-tier option.
The Panthers then earmarked the offensive line and running game as the team's top two priorities in the NFL draft, tabbing tailback Jonathan Stewart with the 13th pick, then packaging three picks (including their first-rounder in 2009) to move back into the first round and grab earth-moving tackle Jeff Otah at No. 19.
While those moves were greeted with universal praise on draft day, neither came without risk. Some even suggested they revealed a mild hint of desperation. After all, Stewart was recovering from surgery on his toe, and his selection hinted that Carolina wasn't entirely sold on Williams, who had been plucked with a first-rounder only two years earlier. Even Otah came with scouting evaluations that skewed – some labeling him a classic brute at tackle, while a smaller contingent thought he lacked the athleticism to develop into a Pro Bowl-caliber player. The Otah pick even surprised Williams, who didn't entirely understand where the pieces would fit at first.
"I was like, 'right tackle?'–" said Williams, who finished third in the league this season with 1,515 rushing yards. "At the time, Jordan [Gross] was playing right tackle. Then they moved [Gross] to left tackle, put [Otah] at right tackle. Then I was like, 'Oh, OK, I see where this is going now.' I looked across the line, and we were all like 6-4, 6-5, 6-6."
In the end, those three additions have paid massive dividends. Muhammad bounced back with his best season (65 catches, 923 yards, five touchdown receptions) since departing from Carolina, while Stewart's pummeling style proved to be the perfect complement to Williams' speed and flash. And once Otah overcame injury issues to become a mainstay in the starting lineup, his presence and Stewart's competition at running back uncorked a rushing game that devastated Carolina opponents over the second half of 2008 – not to devalue the work that Williams put in, developing into a more decisive runner over the course of this season.
"I think [DeAngelo] has just gotten a lot better at doing his job and hitting the holes and taking what is there," said Gross, a rookie on that Super Bowl XXXVIII team. "I think, before, he might have had that [University of] Memphis mentality still, where he thought he could take every play to the house. He's done that quite a bit, but sometimes you're only going to get 2 or 3 yards. He's really fit into his niche as the starting guy really well."
Ultimately, it may be the offensive line and the running game's ability to carry the scoring load which make this unit the masterpiece of Fox's tenure. While the passing triumvirate of Delhomme, Smith and Muhammad has performed similarly to their 2003 run, the line and running backs have shown an ability to cope with injuries. Combine that with the overall experience level compared to the 2003 roster, and Fox's faith seems more than justified.
"Our running-back tandem is a little bit better than it was [in 2003]," Muhammad said. "Not to slight what Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster brought to the table, but Stephen pulled his quad against the St. Louis Rams in the divisional playoff game that year, and he wasn't the same back. … [Another] difference is the fact that Jake is no longer a one-year guy in the system. He's a seasoned veteran in the system. That's allowed us down the stretch to put up points and be consistent."
And while consistency and balance have been the culprits dooming Carolina over the past few seasons, the Panthers' ability to maintain those traits in the playoffs may be what truly stamps this offense as something special.
As Muhammad put it, "Talent-wise, health and depth, I'd say this group is stronger. But that ['03] team went to the Super Bowl. To surpass that group, you've got to show it when it matters. And that's right now."
- Steve Smith
- Jonathan Stewart