It was the first series of overtime at the RCA Dome in Sunday's
game between two unbeaten teams, Carolina and Indianapolis. The
Panthers faced third-and-one at their 36-yard line, and the home
crowd was working itself into a frenzy. The last time Peyton
Manning had gotten his hands on the ball, he had driven the Colts
91 yards for the tying touchdown. Give the ball back to Manning,
Carolina had to figure, and the game was as good as lost.
So the 6-foot, 222-pound running back took the handoff and glided
to the right, waiting for a hole to open. Indy linebacker David
Thornton broke through, but the back slipped the tackle, shook
free from defenders Walt Harris and Montae Reagor at the line of
scrimmage and was stopped only after he had gained eight yards.
Three plays later the back strung out the line again before
dashing up the right side for 12 yards, putting Carolina in
position for John Kasay's winning 47-yard field goal. Once again
in this best start in club history, the back was the Most
Valuable Panther in the game.
But this time it wasn't Stephen Davis who was doing the damage.
It was 2002 second-round pick DeShaun Foster. His 139 yards--85
on 16 carries, 54 on two catches--were the difference in
Carolina's 23-20 win over the Colts. Yes, the NFC's top-ranked
rushing offense just got a little better. Foster, the former UCLA
back who missed all of his rookie season after undergoing
microfracture surgery on his left knee, had but 21 carries for 97
yards in Carolina's first four games. But when Davis, a
free-agent pickup who has run for 641 yards this season, suffered
a bruised right forearm in the third quarter on Sunday, Foster
went to work.
It wasn't how many yards Foster gained but the way he ran for
those yards that was so impressive. Foster is a savvy rusher, out
of the Marcus Allen mold. Speed, quickness, leg drive and
durability are vital characteristics of a great back, but none of
those traits top Foster's list of qualities. "Patience is the
most important attribute a running back can have," he says.
"Running the ball is a cat-and-mouse game. I give my linemen time
to set up the blocks. You have to be patient. Then the key is
finding a crease."
Granted, Foster has had only one strong NFL game, and who knows
if he can stay healthy--his knee still acts up, and he sat out a
practice last Thursday in Charlotte because, he says, the knee
started to ache when the weather cooled off. But on Sunday the
Davis-Foster combination gave the Panthers a potent
inside-outside punch. The two backs combined for 215 yards
rushing and receiving.
Carolina is not an NFL steamroller. The Panthers, with just one
win by a double-digit margin this year, hang around because they
are grounded in the running game and they play great defense.
They don't make mistakes late in the game. Dating to last season,
Carolina has won nine of its last 10 games. Foster is one more
reason why the Panthers shouldn't be taken lightly.