CHARLOTTE -- That the Carolina Panthers saw the potential so quickly encourages them.
Now all they have to do is make it a reality again.
The Panthers' running game, after some eye-popping early returns, has leveled off in recent weeks but keeps showing enough promise to make them think something big's around the corner.
"Yeah, we're just a hair away in a lot of areas in our running game," fullback Brad Hoover said Wednesday. "Not that it's not good effort, but one more push here or one more step or, ... We're real close to breaking a touchdown or a long run.
"We've been doing a decent job, but there's a lot of room for improvement, and we know that. We're not satisfied with where we're at. We all realize, realistically in this room that we can get better, and we're possibly close to a breakout game and realizing the potential we do have."
There's been more of that than production in recent weeks.
The Panthers have averaged 102.5 rushing yards per game this season. It ranks 19th in the league, though they're 11th in attempts.
Since gaining 142 yards in the opener against San Diego, they've logged decent performances against Chicago (114) and Atlanta (107) along with a barely there effort at Minnesota (47), when the game got away from them in the second half.
"We're hitting on some cylinders, but not all cylinders," starting running back DeAngelo Williams acknowledged.
"I don't know," quarterback Jake Delhomme began when asked about the run game. "We've done some good things. The second half against Minnesota wasn't a running-type situation we were in. It was more of a throw-throw-throw situation, so we didn't get a good chance. Last week, Atlanta made a commitment to stop the run, and when that happens, you have to get things on the outside, and certainly the receivers did some good things and that helped out.
"Our run game has scored some touchdowns for us, which is huge. But we're still a work in progress offensively. We've still got a long ways to go."
Perhaps the perception of that distance has grown because of the huge stats they put on the board in August.
It all began with the third preseason game against Washington, in which running backs Williams and Jonathan Stewart combined for 185 rushing yards -- in the first half. That game, against an average team in what's generally the most indicative game of the exhibition slate, raised hopes and expectations.
"We've shown flashes of greatness," Williams said, "Week-in and week-out, defenses are making a conscious effort to stop the run, and the Redskins game in the preseason didn't help us. They make a conscious effort to do that (load up on the run)."
The results have been ebbing, and that's a concern since fixing the run game was such an emphasis. The Panthers have finished in the top half of the league in rushing only twice in John Fox's six full seasons (7th in 2003, 14th in 2007), and that had them beefing up both the backs and the line.
Perhaps the best news for the running game came last week when Delhomme threw at will on Atlanta's secondary. Wide receivers Muhsin Muhammad and Steve Smith combined for 243 yards and two touchdowns. That could open up some things up front as future opponents recognized what they were doing through the air.
"I don't think defenses will look at it and say we'll give them a couple more games to fine tune Smitty and Moose dancing in the end zone," Williams said with a laugh. "I don't think they'll do that."
Of course, the biggest benefit for the Panthers would be keeping the same five blockers in front of their backs. They've only finished a game with the same five linemen twice, and those were the games left guard Travelle Wharton missed with a knee injury and Geoff Hangartner replaced him.
It probably won't get better this week, as starting tackles Jordan Gross and Jeff Otah missed Wednesday's practice with injuries. Gross isn't expected to play because of last week's concussion. Otah's ankle injury doesn't seem as serious, but he's far from certain to be back.
What's left of the unit has played well enough despite an offseason overhaul, which had all five spots originally manned by someone different from the year before.
"That plays a little bit of an effect," center Ryan Kalil said. "But we try to do a good job of knowing how everybody plays in different spots, so that excuse can really only play so long."
Kalil said in watching film, they're seeing small adjustments that will help them.
"Yeah, I think everybody's been kind of taking their turns on not quite finishing enough, or just not holding on long enough," Kalil said. "We watch film, and it's definitely there. We're really close to hitting it big. It's definitely been just the little things we've been missing."
All insist that the problems are imminently correctable, and that it's a matter of time before the results show. A cynic would suggest this is the week, since Kansas City allows 176.5 yards per game on the ground (30th in the league), but the Panthers know the onus is on them.
"I'm not trying to look at what they're giving up," Hoover said. "Every week, there's a possibility that we can go out and do those things. Really, it's just us, not them. How well we're able to come out and get on blocks and open holes. I'd like to think we were more responsible than the teams we're playing against."
Be sure to visit Herald reporter Darin Gantt's Panthers blog and listen to his new weekly podcast for Panthers updates at heraldonline.com.
• Panthers notebook • 4C