Wrestling helps Panthers’ RB tandem bond
Williams and Stewart, the Carolina Panthers’ highly effective 1-2 punch at running back, are a coach’s dream: two talented guys at the same position who don’t fuss about carries or worry about their statistics. They’re more interested in solving the mystery of how to win than strut around.
While that makes for a wonderful, warm-hearted and Pollyanna parallel with Frank and Joe Hardy, the fictional brothers who have been fighting the same basic crime for 80 years, Williams and Stewart have arrived at this partnership partly because of their shared interest in the Hardy Boyz. They would be the real-life wrestling brothers Matt and Jeff, who spend their time strutting to metal-head music in the look-at-me spotlight of the WWE.
“Those are my guys,” said Williams, with a whimsical grin on his face.
He then gave a brief history of the evolution of wrestling to its current incarnation, and even the background on how the real-life Hardys are essentially local favorites in Charlotte because of their North Carolina roots.
Warm-hearted Pollyanna just went flying off the top rope.
Well, maybe not completely. You see, Williams and Stewart, a pair of first-round picks who have combined to rush for 1,980 yards and 23 touchdowns and give the 11-3 Panthers one of the top running games in the league, have created an unusual bond for guys who play the same position.
That was evident after the touchdowns they each scored in a 30-10 victory over Denver on Sunday. After Stewart scored on a 2-yard run in the first half which gave Carolina the lead for good, and following Williams’ 56-yard touchdown run in the second half that essentially put the game away, the two met each other at the 20-yard line to share a moment.
It would almost be a Hallmark moment if not for the “Matrix” celebration dance they did after Williams’ breakaway run. Neo and Morpheus don’t do Hallmark.
“We’ve been doing that all year, even back in the preseason and training camp,” said Williams, who leads the team with 1,229 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns. “I don’t even remember the first time we did that or who did it. It’s just something we did, just naturally.”
What the Panthers have are two modern guys with traditional values, providing a sharp contrast to the episode in Dallas last week about a reported riff involving Terrell Owens, Jason Witten and Tony Romo.
Between their love of the WWE and their trash talking (mostly Williams) while playing Xbox, the two have hit it off from the start. Beyond shared interest, both are low-maintenance guys. Williams loves the idea that when he travels in coach on a plane, some fans look at him and say, “You look like DeAngelo Williams.”
“I tell them, ‘Yeah, I get that a lot, but no, that’s not me,’ ” said Williams, who has distinctive dreads, but even at a muscular 5-foot-9 doesn’t look like your typical football player. “They keep looking at me and you can see them saying, ‘That sure looks like him.’ ”
Stewart plays the role of Teller to Williams’ Penn. It takes work to get much more than six words out of Stewart, even on the touchy subject of melding egos. Stewart was the No. 13 overall pick in April’s NFL draft, raising some eyebrows among people inside and outside the team.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but I wasn’t worried about it,” Stewart said, languidly. “No, I really didn’t worry about it at all. I just tried to make my way around the team and do what I’m supposed to do to help this team. Really, it wasn’t a problem.”
Still, teammates wondered.
“You’re always wondering how guys are going to handle it,” said Panthers fullback Brad Hoover. “Finally, the team had handed the job to DeAngelo this offseason [when DeShaun Foster was allowed to leave as a free agent] and then they take a running back like Jonathan in the first round. So you are wondering. But then the way they handled it right from the beginning, they both accepted their role and there’s never been any sense that one is upset.”
University of Memphis coach Tommy West said such sacrifice has been a constant with Williams, who finished as one of the leading running backs in collegiate history.
“That’s just the way DeAngelo is. He’s one of the best I’ve ever had at understanding what his role is and doing it, whether he likes it or not,” said West, whose Tigers went to three straight bowl games during Williams’ tenure. “He does it, comes to practice and works hard, doesn’t say a word about it. Now, if he doesn’t like the role, he’ll tell you afterward. It’s like when he was coming in as a freshman, I told him right off, ‘Hey, you’re the backup. You’re not going to start.’ I had a good player at running back already. DeAngelo didn’t gripe once.
“Same thing in games. He’d come to the sideline and say, ‘Coach, they got eight guys in the box. How come we keep calling that running play?’ I’d say, ‘Because that eighth guy can’t tackle you. Go make him miss.’ He’d say, ‘OK’ and go do it.”
Likewise, West and Williams went back and forth about whether Williams should turn pro after his junior year.
“I started saying he should stay, and then I flipped and said, ‘Yeah, you should go.’ He started off saying, ‘I should go,’ and then flipped and said he’d stay,” West said.
Carolina nabbed him with the No. 27 overall selection in 2006, and he spent most of the first two seasons as a backup, learning his craft from Foster. This year, Williams took over Foster’s role, including having to explain the plays to Stewart in the huddle in practice during training camp.
“That’s something we always have the older guys do,” said Carolina assistant head coach Jim Skipper, who handles the running backs. “They go in and explain the plays to the younger guys after the call is made. That makes the older guys responsible and it makes the younger guys understand, ‘Hey, this older guy is here to help me, I can trust him.’ ”
Stewart can also trust that Williams isn’t counting the numbers between the two. Like so many players, Williams says he doesn’t keep track of his stats. But in this case, it appears to be true.
“I don’t keep track because somebody else always will,” he said. “When you can tell me that stats help win a Super Bowl, then I’ll keep track of them.”
So, Williams was asked, you don’t worry at all that you should have more than the 17 rushing touchdowns you’ve already scored this year?
“No, I don’t,” he said, not falling for the trap.
Like one of the Hardy Boys, Williams knew his way out of trouble.