Panthers center Jeff Mitchell couldn't believe his ears. It wasn't the announcement that Carolina had named Nick Goings the starter at running back for its Nov. 14 game against San Francisco; Mitchell was surprised to hear that Goings had been as low as sixth on the depth chart, thinking instead that his teammate had moved up only a couple spots. That shows how much the Panthers have been decimated by injuries one season after they went to the Super Bowl--even the players can't keep track of who's healthy and who's hurt.
With 14 players on injured reserve, including four running backs, Carolina had to go deep into its roster to find a player who could help the team regain its smash-mouth identity. Goings, who has rushed for more than 100 yards in each of his last three starts, filled the bill. He gained 122 yards on a team-record 36 carries in a 32--21 win over the Saints on Sunday, as the Panthers (5--7) won their fourth straight and climbed into the NFC wild-card race after a 1--7 start. Carolina's schedule is favorable, too, with a home date this Sunday against St. Louis (6--6), which is also fighting for a playoff spot, and only one game left against a team that presently has a winning record (Dec. 18 at Atlanta).
"We're a team that's always had great success when it was running the football," Goings says. "We've finally gotten back to that."
After running backs Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster went down in the first half of the year with season-ending injuries, opposing teams had no reason to respect the Carolina ground game. Quarterback Jake Delhomme started forcing his throws and made other mistakes.
However, since Goings started churning out tough yards, the field has opened up for Delhomme (11 touchdown passes and only two interceptions during the winning streak) and wideout Muhsin Muhammad (six TD catches in that span). "He's smart, tough and a talented guy," Panthers coach John Fox says of Goings. "He's not the biggest, strongest or fastest back in the league, but he's made the most of this opportunity."
The 6-foot, 225-pound Goings wasn't even a starter as a senior at Pitt, where he backed up Kevan Barlow (now a starter with the 49ers). Goings went undrafted in 2001, signed with Carolina and caught on as a special teams player. A straight-ahead runner who is most effective running between the tackles, Goings carried 126 times for 454 yards in his first three seasons, starting only four games. But after Davis, Foster, Rod Smart and Joey Harris landed on injured reserve and Brad Hoover was sidelined for two games with a hip injury, Goings got his shot.
He got the call only eight times and picked up 42 yards in the 37--27 victory over the 49ers, but a week later he gained 121 yards and scored a team-record three rushing touchdowns in a 35--10 win over Arizona. The next week he had 106 yards in a 21--14 victory over Tampa Bay. On Sunday he showed his durability, carrying 19 times for 55 yards and a touchdown as Carolina built a 26--7 halftime lead. When New Orleans threatened to get back into the game late in the third quarter, Goings carried six times on a 14-play drive that ate up more than seven minutes and ended with John Kasay's 21-yard field goal. In the fourth quarter Goings had 11 carries for 65 yards.
Afterward Goings merely shrugged when told by a team official that he had put his name in the Carolina record book again with his 36 carries, but his teammates were impressed. "Our offensive coordinator [Dan Henning] is always talking about how guys have to step up when people go down," says Mitchell. "I usually roll my eyes when I hear that talk, but Nick is proof of how important that is."