Confessions of a DeAngelo convert

I'M JUST SAYIN'

At first, I wasn’t buying into the DeAngelo Williams hype. But after watching him annihilate the New Orleans defense on Sunday, I drank the Kool-Aid

I have to admit: At first, I wasn’t buying into the DeAngelo Williams hype. I mean, I knew the Carolina Panthers running back was one of the NFL’s most improved players in this his third season. I even thought he had become one of the most promising ball carriers in the league.

But that was it.

When seemingly all of Charlotte was up in arms, griping that Williams got snubbed when he didn’t make the NFC’s Pro Bowl roster, I smirked. Williams deserved to make the team over Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson, Atlanta’s Michael Turner and Washington’s Clinton Portis? Please. I just wasn’t drinking the Kool-Aid.

But after watching him annihilate yet another defense in the Panthers’ 33-31 win at New Orleans Sunday, instead of “red,” my favorite Kool-Aid flavor is DeAngelo.

Not only do I believe Williams is one of the five best running backs in the league, regardless of conference, I think Carolina’s ability to go deep into the playoffs is directly related to how often it gets him the ball.

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It’s so obvious now.

No, I haven’t totally lost my mind — Steve Smith is still The Man for the Panthers. The Pro Bowl wide receiver should get at least eight touches a game because he’s the best playmaker in the league, let alone Charlotte. But Williams allows the Panthers to control a game from start to finish, like they should have done against New Orleans Sunday.

Williams averaged a robust 7.1 yards per carry against the Saints. That’s sick! We’re not talking about some guy padding his average with a 50- or 60-yard touchdown jaunt thrown in with a bunch 2-yard gains. In fact, Williams didn’t even score, and his longest run of the day was 30 yards.

He simply was dominant against the Saints, getting pretty yards and tough yards, and making the defense nervous every time he was in the game – just as he’s done all season.

But one of the few criticisms I have about the newly crowned NFC South champions is they didn’t always put Williams (178 yards on 25 carries) in the game during the most critical stages.

I get it: Rookie Jonathan Stewart has had a great season, too, and the Panthers have employed a two-headed rushing attack all year. But when Carolina was trying to put away the game in the fourth quarter, Williams, not Stewart, should have been toting the rock.

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Instead, Williams had just five carries in the final stanza, when the Panthers were letting a 30-17 lead slip into a one-point deficit. Ultimately, they needed a last-gasp field goal from John Kasay to secure a first-round playoff bye and a game at Bank of America Stadium in a few weeks.

There’s no shame in winning that way. Hey, this time of year, you get victories by any means necessary (sorry, Malcolm!) and keep your season going. But for the Panthers to make that Super Bowl run I believe they’re capable of, Williams needs to figure more prominently in the attack, especially during the most important moments of the game.

Williams, who has an NFL-best 18 rushing touchdowns, gives Carolina a legitimate home-run threat — only Houston rookie Steve Slaton matches his five runs of 40 yards or more this season. Williams also is one of the league’s most reliable ball carriers — among the league’s top 25 rushers, only he and San Diego’s LaDainian Tomlinson haven’t fumbled.

I couldn’t have imagined saying this when the 2008 season started, but the great Tomlinson and Peterson are the only running backs I’d take over Williams right now.

He’s better than everybody else in the league.

Sunday should serve as a lesson for the Panthers: No matter how bright his future, there’s no way Stewart should take carries from Williams during key moments of the upcoming playoffs.

That’s not a knock on Stewart, who’s probably hit a bit of a wall since this is his first year playing more than 12 or 13 games; it’s merely a point that Williams officially is one of his sport’s elite running backs.

Granted, it took a while for a hack like me to start acting like it. But now that it’s win-or-go-home time in the NFL, the Panthers had better do the same.

C. Jemal Horton has covered sports for the Washington Post, Indianapolis Star and Charlotte Observer. He currently is group sports editor for Carolina Weekly Newspapers.

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