SPARTANBURG -- Since the day he walked in the door, Carolina Panthers coach John Fox has talked about the importance of running and stopping the run.
That they've been only half successful in that regard led to a change in offensive coordinators this offseason, and the players charged with implementing the new directive seem encouraged by the early results.
Right tackle Jordan Gross acknowledged the new emphasis on fixing the running game that came with new play-caller Jeff Davidson (himself a former NFL blocker), and said the hope is that the offense can finally hold up its end of Fox's simple equation.
"I thought he was a good fit," Fox said of Davidson. "The way he coaches, his background, and the things he believes in are very similar to my line of thinking."
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The result has been a more physical first two days of camp. They're installing more of the running game now than in past camps, the result of the differences Davidson's bringing. You can talk about running all day long, but demonstrating the importance in practice has made some believers.
"It's nice," Gross said with a grin when asked about the increased repetitions. "You don't always want to talk about the past, but I think the way we're doing it now is really making it known to the O-line that it's going to be important and we're going to get a chance to do it."
For all the talk about the importance of the ground game the last five years, the Panthers have only finished in the top half of the league once -- in 2003, when running back Stephen Davis was well and a veteran line cleared lanes for him. The other four years, they were either undermanned in the backfield (2002, 2004 and in the 2005 NFC Championship Game) or up front (losing two starting linemen in last year's opener).
The result has been a pedestrian run game, which has been incredibly ordinary in the years Davis didn't dominate.
Though players are hesitant to call names, much of the talk in the early days in camp has been the shift from former coordinator Dan Henning and line coach Mike Maser for Davidson and new line coach Dave Magazu. For all the discussions of zone blocking, the players talk about the new energy, hopeful the change brings an improved result.
They've made changes to the game plan, most of them subtle, but the players appear to have bought in completely.
Left guard Mike Wahle rattled off a list of the technical differences, then quickly added: "It's a question of putting ourselves in better positions to make plays."
"Guys are still going to have to make plays," Wahle said. "It's not like all of a sudden you put a magic pill in our water. It's still going to take a lot of work. But we feel like we have a better opportunity to make plays with what's going on now, and we're excited about it.
"I'm not one of those guys who's going to sit here and bad-mouth what's going on the last few years. I'm excited about what's going on now."
Gross made a point that the current staff has neither discovered fire or re-invent the wheel. The list of basic running plays isn't as long as many think, and many of the concepts survived the coaching transactions.
To hear him tell it, the change itself is as important as what it's being changed from or to.
"I think the nicest thing is we have a new system and a new life to the offense," Gross said. "Everybody is having to pay more attention, take more notes. Whenever that happens, there's more excitement involved. So I think what we are running and calling now will benefit the style of backs we have, kind of let them open it up more and run. I think we can do some good things this year.
"From the talk and what it looks like, it sounds like we're going to find out what we do well and stick with that. It's similar stuff to what we've done before. Whenever you've got a new position coach, he's going to coach things a little differently. But it's still football, there's only so many calls you can make. It's just kind of a new mentality."
Since the first minicamps, backup running back DeAngelo Williams has spoken often of his glee for the new system, which reminds him of his college days at Memphis. With increased opportunities for cut-backs and open-field running, he seems to be back in a comfortable place.
But Gross said starter DeShaun Foster (who has chosen not to talk about the change), should benefit as much or more, since he'll still get the bulk of the carries.
"I feel like he's excited about this year," Gross said of Foster. "He's kind of had a monkey on his back since he's been here. He hasn't fit the type of plays we call for him, I think.
"He's done a great job with what he has been given. But talking to him, he's real excited now to cut it loose. He's healthy, having the best offseason he's had since I've been here, and he's really wanting to have a big season this year."
If he can, if Williams adds his part and the early optimism in front of them holds, then the Panthers offense might finally deliver the one thing Fox has always asked.
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