All the way back in training camp in his home town of Spartanburg, S.C., running back Stephen Davis had an inkling the Carolina Panthers had a chance to be special this season. Maybe not Super Bowl special, he admitted the other day, but he's hardly complaining about now preparing for the most important game of his life.
"What the Panthers did the season before, finishing up strong, my thing was I wanted to get somewhere where they were going to give me an opportunity to go out and win," he said. "Everybody didn't expect this, but guys work hard, guys prove themselves and this team has a lot of heart and character and it shows on the field. I felt that I had a good opportunity here."
For the Panthers, the eventual signing of free agent Davis last March represented the opening of a new chapter in the team's history, a chapter that will end with an appearance in Super Bowl XXXVIII on Sunday against the New England Patriots. For the Washington Redskins, who had released Davis after the season for salary cap reasons and because he did not fit into coach Steve Spurrier's pass-oriented offense, it marked one of the major blunders in club history.
The mistake may have been compounded even more with the resignation of Spurrier and the arrival of Joe Gibbs in Washington, a Hall of Fame head coach who appreciates a pounding, productive and clock-killing 230-pound power running back more than most.
Asked about Gibbs on Wednesday at a team media session, Davis raised his eyebrows and smiled. "What if?" he wondered out loud. "Man, you never know."
The Panthers know this: Without 29-year-old Davis and his 1,444 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, they almost certainly would not be playing at Reliant Stadium on Sunday. Their investment in him included a $2.5 million signing bonus, a $1 million base salary and incentives he reached this year that will bring his total earnings to $6.75 million, according to the Charlotte Observer.
Coach John Fox has had no buyer's remorse.
"I knew he was the style of back we were looking for," he said. "He was a guy I thought was worth the investment we made in him. . . . He's been a huge reason why we're here."
Davis will face a New England defense that knows he and running mate DeShaun Foster will not be deviating from the Panthers' usual game plan. Davis is also expecting a physical game against one of the most disciplined and aggressive defenses in the league.
"They don't make a lot of mistakes on defense," Davis said. "They make plays as far as getting interceptions and turnovers. Top to bottom they're fundamentally sound. They've got a lot of great athletes and a lot of guys who can make plays. But the thing we have to do is just go out there and play our game . . . No mistakes, no turnovers, no penalties, just playing an error-free game. It's going to be hard because the way those guys play, they're going to cause some mistakes. If we do make a mistake, don't get out of whack about it. Just stay focused and play great team football."
His teammates love the way Davis plays the game.
"Adding Stephen Davis was like the last tire that needed to be rotated on the car," Panthers defensive tackle Brentson Buckner said. "Everything has been riding smoothly since then. He came in when we were in our offseason conditioning program. Guys said, 'This is our horse. This is the guy ho is going to get us the hard yards.'
"And on defense, we knew he was going to keep us off the field. Now you know your plays are going to get cut in half because we were going to eat the clock up."
That is how the Panthers have played all year, and that is exactly how Fox plans to play it Sunday. Davis got a full load of work Wednesday in the Panthers' first full practice of the week, and before it even began, he said, "I feel great."
That certainly was not the case 10 days ago against the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC title game. The previous week, he had suffered a strained quadriceps muscle on a 64-yard run in the second quarter against the Rams, and his status for the Eagles truly wasn't determined until the pre-game warm-up.
"He is a true professional," running backs coach Jim Skipper said. "He's got a lot of guts. In the game against Phlly, he was hurting. He was not at full strength. We took him out early that day for a workout before the game, and I had my doubts. But he said, 'I'm ready to go.' He played, and he played hard and with pain."
Davis gained 76 yards that day on 19 carries, and Foster, more of an outside threat, gained 60. Davis didn't practice last week to continue the healing process, but he said Wednesday he feels he's back to full strength and is prepared to carry the ball as many times as he's asked.
"I just run with the ball," he said. "I make plays out of the backfield as far as catching the ball, and when I touch it 25 times a game . . . I like to run between the tackles, downhill, the hard yards. I definitely don't like to lose yards, so the hard yards are where it's at." The latter is a trait the blockers in front of him appreciate.
"He makes our job so much easier," veteran tackle Todd Steussie said. "It's important to get him early carries because he has that ability to get you four, five yards right off the bat and send a message to their defense. He turns little holes into big holes, and he'll push the pile forward. He understands it may only be a three-yard run, but he'll put his head down and keep driving, even if it means getting a bruised rib.
"He has the understanding and the vision to see what's there. He reads down blocks better than any back I've ever seen. He knows the hole may not be there when he's three yards behind the line, but he also knows it will be there by the time he gets there. It is a pleasure to block for him."
For Davis, it's a pleasure to be playing on a team that thinks run first, and rarely abandons it. He's also thrilled to be back near his childhood home of Spartanburg, where the Panthers conduct their training camp and he once played high school football at a place called Snyder Field. And now, he's over the moon about getting the chance to play in his first Super Bowl for a team that appreciates his bruising talent.
"I'm with an organization that believes in me, believes in what I can do," he said. "Last season, I wasn't having any fun. I'm having fun again."