DeAngelo Williams’ trying season takes another turn Sunday. The Panthers running back gets his old job back.
Williams has been demoted, seen his name mentioned in trade talks and become the league’s most expensive complementary backfield piece. And there are still five games remaining.
But for one day anyway, Williams will be back in the starting lineup.
With Jonathan Stewart out with a high ankle sprain, Williams will make his first start since Week 5 on Sunday at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium.
Where Williams winds up after the season is anyone’s guess. The Panthers will have a new general manager and, perhaps, a new coaching staff that will have to decide whether Williams, 29, is worth the $17.25 million he’s owed over the final three years of his contract.
“I’m ready for whatever,” Williams said this week. “This is my seventh year in the league. I don’t have a lot of tread on the tires. If they keep me, I’m fine with it. If they let me go, I’m fine. It’s not my decision.
“If it was my decision, I signed a five-year contract and I’m here to honor that contract. If they decide that they want to release me or let me go or trade me, it’s out of my hands.”
The Panthers gave Williams a $43 million contract extension before the 2011 season, which was one of major changes in the organization. Former coach John Fox and his run-first approach were gone, replaced by Ron Rivera – whose offensive coordinator, Rob Chudzinski, brought an attack based on the deep pass from San Diego.
The Panthers also had dual-threat quarterback Cam Newton, the No. 1 overall pick, behind center.
After averaging 16.4 carries a game from 2008-10, Williams saw his carries drop to 9.7 a game last season with Chudzinski calling plays.
Stewart’s touches fell off, too – from 12.7 carries a game from 2008-10 to 8.9 a game last season.
Because of the 2011 lockout, Rivera’s staff was not able to stage organized team activities or minicamps. The Panthers’ first practices came at training camp in Spartanburg.
Williams was asked whether he would have re-signed with the Panthers had he known what shape the offense was going to take.
He declined to comment.
While Williams has refrained from creating any controversy with public comments since his demotion or at any point over the past two seasons, he has re-tweeted posts from fans and media members questioning the team’s rushing philosophy.
Teammates and coaches say Williams has dealt with the situation as well as could be expected.
“He’s a competitor and that’s what you get out of him. He’s handled the situation really well, with our situation running the ball and the moves that have been done on the roster,” Stewart said. “We understand that we’re players and we’ve just got to play. At the end of the day, that’s all we can control.
“That’s the mindset he has. That’s the mindset we have as a running back corps.”
Said Rivera: “DeAngelo’s been great through this whole process of doing the things he needs to do, and always being prepared. He’s a professional.”
A midseason change
Looking to spark their struggling offense, the Panthers decided during the team’s bye week to go to a more traditional running attack and make Stewart the starter. The move to more I-formation runs and fewer zone-read option calls coincided with a season-ending foot injury to Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil.
The injury forced the Panthers to re-shuffle their offensive line, which has been inconsistent. Part of the thinking in going with Stewart is that he could break more tackles than Williams, who is the faster of the two backs.
In the five games before the bye-week change, the Panthers rushed for 114 yards per game. In the six games since, they’ve averaged 103 rushing yards.
“We were looking to get the other back (Stewart) going and see if we could get a spark, just trying to create something for this team at that point,” Rivera said. “You get in a situation where you’ve been in position to win, what else can you do? And my thought process then was, let’s see if we can run the ball and we can grind it out and keep physical up front.
“Unfortunately, with the injury to Ryan Kalil and the shuffling of the offensive line, it really didn’t coincide the way I hoped it would.”
In recent weeks, the Panthers have re-instituted the zone-read plays, which call for Newton to read the defense and either hand the ball to the back or keep it himself.
Rivera said the Panthers would call runs Sunday against the Chiefs to take advantage of Williams’ skill set.
“He does run downhill (toward the sidelines) pretty doggone good. He’s got good vision. He’s a cutback runner, too, that slashes,” Rivera said. “I think in the things that we’ll call, we’ll try to exploit the things that he does best.”
After running for 836 yards and seven touchdowns in 2011, Williams has only 292 rushing yards and three scores this season. Williams is averaging 3.2 yards a carry – nearly 2 yards off his 5.1-yard average entering this season.
He said he has tried to “adopt and adapt” to Chudzinski’s scheme.
“It’s more of a chess game than a downhill smash-and-grab style of offense,” Williams said. “But whatever they call you to do, you try to get it done because you’ve got to be productive and you’ve got to help your other teammates out. You’ve got to keep the guys off Cam in the passing game. So we’ll do whatever it takes to get the ball downhill with those positive yards.”
Commitment to run
Many questioned the logic when the Panthers added fullback Mike Tolbert during the offseason, then gave Stewart a $36.5 million extension in August. The Panthers have nearly $48 million in guaranteed money committed to the three running backs.
When the Panthers signed Tolbert, they talked about his versatility as a blocker and receiver, and said he would help fill the void left by tight end Jeremy Shockey’s departure. But Rivera said this week the Panthers are going back to more two tight end sets.
Chudzinski said it’s not easy to get everyone the ball.
“I understand when you’ve got multiple ball carriers and you’re not just talking about (Williams) and Stew, (but) Mike Tolbert and Cam,” Chudzinski said. “There are a lot of guys to split carries between. The biggest thing we have to do is do a better job of blocking and giving those guys good opportunities to get yards.”
The Panthers have not had a 100-yard rusher since Williams’ 115-yard outing last year against New Orleans, which included a 69-yard touchdown run.
Williams had a big day in his only other game against the Chiefs, rushing for 123 yards and two touchdowns and catching a 25-yard touchdown pass in the Panthers’ 34-0 win in 2008. That was at the peak of Williams’ production: He rushed for 1,515 yards and 18 touchdowns that year, the Panthers’ last playoff season.
The following year Williams and Stewart became the first tandem in league history to each rush for 1,100 yards. Williams played only six games in 2010 before going on injured reserve with a foot injury during a season that opened his eyes to the business side of the game.
“I got a chance to sit back and see this machine work,” Williams said. “You see it for what it is. It’s still football. But behind that football, once you open that door it’s business.”
The experience helped prepare Williams for dealing with the trade deadline talks this year, when at least one playoff-contending team called the Panthers to inquire about him.
“It was kind of, whatever happens, happens,” Williams said. “I was preparing to stay here because I had no idea I was even on the trading block or what have you. Through different media outlets, I was told that. I was never told by the owner or the interim GM. So I practiced and I played like I was going to be here.”
Williams isn’t sure where he’ll be next season. Based on their current salary commitments, the Panthers are expected to be at least $5 million over next year’s cap. The next GM will have several key personnel decisions to make, and it’s not hard to envision a new GM opting to go with Stewart, who is younger at 25.
Depending on the severity of Stewart’s ankle sprain, it’s conceivable Sunday could be Williams’ last start as a Panther.
Williams said his approach didn’t change when he lost his starting spot, and it won’t be different against the Chiefs.
“In my eyes, I never lost it. I’ve never really looked at it as a demotion. I looked at it as an opportunity to get better,” Williams said.
“It’s not like we’re running the ball any more or any less than we did when I was starting versus me not starting. So there’s no change.”
And yet, everything is different from where Williams was three years ago.
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