December 25, 2008 - 10:56 PM
CHARLOTTE - As the Carolina Panthers stumbled toward the finish line last season, there was some debate over the merits of hiring Jeff Davidson as offensive coordinator 11 months earlier.
Well, those days are long gone.
Nobody is complaining about the former Bill Belichick understudy anymore.
Carolina's offense is on a roll like we've never seen before in 14 years, scoring at least 28 points in each of the last six games.
They've never been stronger on the ground, rushing for a franchise record 2,203 yards and 29 touchdowns. With 19 points Sunday against New Orleans, the Panthers will surpass 400 points for the season, something they've only done once before (1999). That's a far cry from the Carolina team that scored more than 28 points only twice all of last season and finished 26th in the league in scoring and 29th in total offense.
The only conclusion is that the problem last year wasn't Davidson, but that rather the fact that he was handcuffed by the fact he didn't have a quarterback to work with after Jake Delhomme went down with an elbow injury in Week 3.
Carolina's offense started well in 2007, but the injury to Delhomme set them back more than anyone can realize and the Panthers were never able to recover while playing musical chairs at quarterback all season.
Consistency at the quarterback position this season, along with some key upgrades at wide receiver (Muhsin Muhammad), running back (Jonathan Stewart), right tackle (Jeff Otah) and right guard (Keydrick Vincent) have the Panthers poised to finish 12-4 and win the NFC South if they can defeat the Saints on Sunday at the Louisiana Superdome.
Delhomme didn't want to get into comparisons between Davidson and the man he replaced, Dan Henning. But he admitted things are much different than they were his previous five seasons in Carolina.
"The quarterback has more on his plate, so to speak, where Dan's we really didn't," Delhomme said. "We have a lot more. We're heavily involved in the run game checks and things like that. But that's what's great about this offense - you try to get us in the right spot and the right situation."
Delhomme said different personnel - most notably a bigger, more physical offensive line - has been a big difference, too.
"I think Jeff is doing a great job," Delhomme said. "It's going well so far. We just need to keep it going."
The star of the offense has clearly been running back DeAngelo Williams, who has already established a team record with 20 touchdowns this season and needs 108 yards to break Stephen Davis' single-season franchise rush-ing record.
Williams attributes his success to getting more comfortable in his second year under Davidson.
"When I got a better understanding of the new concepts it was toward the end of the year because we had the quarterback issue," Williams said. "We had quarterbacks going down so he didn't fully give us the whole offense. We were kind of hindered a little bit.
"We finally got in the groove in the offseason and he gave us the whole playbook. We got the concepts down, got everything down. Our offensive line started gelling together and understood what they were doing up front. When I got a better understanding of the offense, them getting comfortable with me and me getting comfortable with them, we just all pulled it together. We got our run game, our passing game and everything going together."
Williams said he feels like the Panthers are in a zone with their play calling.
"Jeff is doing some great play calling down the stretch," Williams said. "He's getting us into situations where we can be successful. I think we're being more consistent this year than we have the past two years. I think that's the big change that I see, the consistency."
The Panthers have been particularly effective in the red zone, scoring touchdowns on 66.7 percent of their trips inside the opponent's 20-yard line - the best mark in the NFC.
And while the Panthers may be viewed as a "three yards and a cloud of dust" offense, that's not necessarily true.
Williams has six touchdown runs of 30 yards or more, one shy of Jim Brown's single-season record set in 1958.
"He's finishing well," Delhomme said.
Now the Panthers offense hopes to do the same heading into the postseason.