Carolina Panthers

Panthers' Williams taking advantage of starting

CHARLOTTE -- We've finally arrived at something DeAngelo Williams likes better than Halloween -- being the prime running back of a good NFL team at Halloween.

The Carolina Panthers' starter -- and yes, he's hung onto that title longer than many imagined -- is flourishing and giving opponents nightmares.

Normally, he prefers to save that for the neighborhood kids, like the one he sent to get clean underwear and therapy by coming at him with a chain saw sans chain.

Get him talking about horror movies this time of year, and you'd better have plenty of tape in your recorder, because he can go on and on. The other day, he was breaking down the five "Saw" movies, hardly the kind of psychological dramas that require much in the way of dissection.

It's hard to not leave his side smiling, because he's got a youthful demeanor that will at least have you laughing with him. Once, he asked me and another writer our opinions of the best movie ever made. I told him it was "Blazing Saddles," the other guy said "Shane," and Williams just shook his head.

"What is it with old white guys and Westerns?" he said quizzically, before giving us 10 minutes on why last year's "Transformers" was the peak of cinematic perfection.

He was working it like a presidential debate, trying to convince people he's right. It was child-like in its earnestness though never childish. The enthusiasm with which he defended the position almost made you want to believe him.

Likewise, he's all smiles now, grinning from ear to ear through post-game interviews that he used to shun. He was taught to do so by the privately funny but publicly dour DeShaun Foster, who learned it from the old-school grumpy Stephen Davis.

But clamming up and saying nothing was a bad fit for Williams. He had too much to express, too much fun to have, too many smiles to unleash.

Kind of like his role on the team.

He's 10th in the league in rushing, the kind of production folks imagined from the position but not one guy. From the day they drafted Jonathan Stewart, the assumption was he'd quickly replace Williams.

But Williams has flourished rather than shrunk from the assignment.

"You guys keep trying to separate them; We look at them kind of together," coach John Fox said. "It's our running back position. Both of them have played well."

Williams doesn't mind sharing, he just needs to be sharing with someone having success. He never said it out loud last year, but it was clear he grew weary of getting Foster's leftovers. The incumbent back when Williams was drafted was incredible in spurts, but never able to sustain his success. So Williams would come in, fire off a flare and do something big. And then he waited for his chance to do it again.

You could tell, and word is strong behind the scenes, that he watched Foster's fits-and-starts running and wondered what he had to do to get a chance.

The funny part, now that he was finally in position to make the job his, was that the Panthers brought in more competition than he was for Foster. Drafting Stewart in the first round was enough to set him on guard, to make him nervous. After all, the physical Stewart's a better fit for the personality of Fox's offense, and Williams is plenty smart enough to know that.

So this spring, he didn't give Stewart a cold shoulder, but welcomed him with open arms. The same guy who did some behind-the-scenes griping in the past was now open to the idea, at the same time he was set to capitalize on the old division of labor.

In short, Williams has been utterly adult about the whole thing.

His game has grown, as well.

Backs are always victims of characterizations, which are often unfair and sometimes misleading.

Davis was labeled a "big back," because of his size, ignoring his pedigreed sprinter's speed. Thus, Foster became the "change of pace" back, and his style was described with a shiftiness he may have never possessed. Likewise, with the taller Foster in the lead role, the diminutive Williams was pegged as a "scatback," the kind of tag that was hung on him again when they drafted Stewart.

Truth be told, a healthy Davis was probably faster than Foster. Truth be told, Foster might have been as powerful as Davis if not moreso. By the same token, Williams was more explosive than Foster, though Foster once carried that mantle when he was the other guy.

Such is the labeling process. People want things to fit in easy boxes, and right now, that's hard to do with Williams.

Because he's been labeled fast, he clearly can't be strong. Tell that to Arizona safety Aaron Francisco after Williams treated him like a trampoline, bouncing off his vicious shoulder tackle and straight into the end zone. Tell that to the guys he flattens in pass protection, which was the main reason he had such an early edge over Stewart. He whiffed on one last week, but was quick to admit it, apologetically.

But with the ball, he's running hard inside, feet churning, fighting for every yard.

Clearly, he's coming at defenses like a horror movie villain -- never dying, never stopping, always slashing.

It's the perfect time, now that Williams has found the perfect role.