SPARTANBURG, S.C. (AP) — DeAngelo Williams still enjoys playing in Carolina’s offensive system even though his workload is far less than other starting NFL running backs.
Williams had fewer than 10 carries per game last season and his 155 carries were less than 27 other tailbacks in the league. That’s largely because of the presence of fellow running back Jonathan Stewart and athletic quarterback Cam Newton.
But Williams wasn’t upset in the least about that role.
“It’s easy,” Williams said of how he deals with sharing carries in Carolina’s offense. “You have to approach it as a team game.”
This year Williams’ workload could be reduced even more after the Panthers (No. 20 in the AP Pro32) signed free agent fullback Mike Tolbert in March and re-signed Williams’ close friend, the younger and equally talented Jonathan Stewart, to a five-year, $36.5 million contract extension last week.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera maintains that splitting carries not only allows his backs to stay healthier, but it also makes them more productive as the season — and their careers — wear on.
It’s hard to argue that point after seeing the results last year.
After a slow start, Williams came on strong and averaged 5.4 yards per carry, second only in the league among running backs to Dallas’ DeMarco Murray (5.5).
Likewise, Stewart also averaged 5.4 yards per carry on 142 total carries.
And Newton, whose electrifying nature landed him on the cover of GQ magazine for the month of September, carried 126 times and averaged 5.6 yards per carry. As a team the Panthers finished third in the league in rushing.
This offseason they added Tolbert, who’s expected to be used as a blocker, receiver and running back.
Williams has welcomed him with open arms, knowing that Tolbert could also be the guy who opens a few more holes for him at the line of scrimmage and springs him for some long runs.
“I always welcome new talent and competition because it makes us better,” Williams said. “He’s definitely a great fullback. I’ve seen him dancing on TV and YouTube. He does a great job and I think he’s going to add another element to our offense.”
What helps Williams’ perspective, perhaps, is that he’s known nothing else since coming into the league.
After an unbelievable college career at Memphis where he became Conference USA’s all-time leader in carries and left for the NFL as the then-NCAA Division I all-time leader in all-purpose yards, Williams has been sharing carries in Carolina with DeShaun Foster and Stewart since joining the Panthers as a first-round draft pick.
Only twice in his six seasons has he registered more than 200 carries in a season, the most by far, coming in 2008 when he carried 273 times and set a Panthers record with 1,515 yards rushing.
“It’s was easy to cope with coming from Memphis, where I was getting 20, 30 carries a game,” said Williams, who is Carolina’s all-time leading scorer. “I’ve gotten used to it. It’s a team game. There’s only one football on the field.”
Then he laughed, saying “Now had there been two or three footballs on the field, then I may have had a problem with not getting the ball more.”
What the Panthers will do on offense remains to be seen — they’ve even experimented with a few plays in training camp where Newton, Williams, Stewart and Tolbert are in the backfield at the same time, a throwback to the old wishbone look.
But it’s a pretty good bet that as long as Newton remains under center and Stewart is healthy Williams will be no threat to challenge for the individual NFL rushing title.
And he’s OK with that.
“I think our guys realize that what we’re doing and the way we do it is good for them, and if it’s good for them it’s good for the team,” Rivera said. “If our guys are getting anywhere between eight and 10 touches, 12 touches, and they’re effective, it’s great. And what it does, it doesn’t wear them down.”
While Williams’ numbers in terms of total yards remain fairly modest, he’s about to enter some legendary territory.
With four more carries Williams will join Jim Brown as the only two backs with at least 1,000 rushing attempts to average at least 5 yards a carry — assuming Williams doesn’t lose 48 total yards on those four rushes.
One other back, San Francisco’s Joe Perry in 1956, hit the 5-yard average after 1,000 carries but dropped below that mark before finishing his career.
Williams didn’t know about that statistic, and called it “sweet.”
“When I get a chance to look back with my kids or my grandkids, I’ll be able to tell them, `Do you know Jim Brown?’ They’re probably going to say no,” Williams said with a laugh.