When the Panthers signed free agent running back Stephen Davis last March 14th, the theory in Carolina was that the veteran, workhorse back would help elevate the team's offense closer to the level of its defense that ranked second in the NFL during the team's 7-9 2002 season.
Well, the Panthers got that and then some. Not only was Davis a consistent, game controlling type runner this season, he's combined with free agent quarterback Jake Delhomme as the two players most responsible for helping to turn the 2002 middle-of-the-pack Panthers into the 2003 NFC champions looking to complete a dramatic two-year turnaround this Sunday against the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII at Reliant Stadium.
The three-time Pro Bowler led the Panthers and finished third in the NFC with 1,444 yards on 318 carries (4.5 avg.) with eight touchdowns despite missing two games to injury. He also added 14 receptions for 159 yards.
Davis says his focus on being a key part of the Carolina rebuilding project was immediate and that upon finalizing a deal with the Panthers this offseason his focus quickly shifted toward the opportunities he and his new team would have in the coming season.
"Our expectations were to win our division, make the playoffs and when you do that anything can happen," Davis said of his thoughts heading into his first season in Carolina. "We are the type of guys that take one game at a time, one week at a time. We just go out there and get ourselves prepared the same way we do every week. We just go out there and play hard."
And although there were questions about how much Davis might have left in the tank entering his 8th season in the NFL, including three straight seasons from 1999-2001 in which he carried the ball more than 290 times with a high of 356 in 2001, the former Auburn star never doubted his potential contributions for one minute.
"I knew that given the opportunity that I was going to make the best of it," Davis said.
Looking back at his final season in Washington, one in which he had a three-season 1,000-yard rushing streak snapped with just 802 yards, Davis realizes that parting ways with the team that originally drafted him in the fourth round of the 1996 draft was probably a blessing in disguise.
"You don't want to be released from a team that you started with, but in a sense it was a relief because you don't want to stay somewhere where you are not wanted and the coach doesn't want you," Davis said. "You just want to go out and go to a team that will appreciate what you can do and what you can bring to a team."
According to Panthers Head Coach John Fox, Davis is a player the organization appreciated even before Washington released him and he became available on the free agent market last winter.
"Even at the end of last season that was pretty much something that was expected to happen," Fox said of Davis' potential availability. "It wasn't etched in stone, but the rumor was that was going to happen. He's a guy we had earmarked very early on in the process.
"I was familiar with him from being the defensive coordinator of the Giants and playing him all those times. I knew he was the style of back we were looking for. He was a guy who I thought was worth the investment we made. I was very, very pleased we got him and the season he's had for us.
And there are certainly no questions about being appreciated these days. Davis is a key piece of what the Panthers hope is a championship puzzle and any chance of a Carolina win this Sunday resides, at least in part, on the powerful shoulders of the Panthers 6-0, 230-pound workhorse.