Did you catch the way Jon Gruden was practically panting on "Monday Night Football" a couple of days ago with his praise of Panther RB DeAngelo Williams?
Gruden said, among other things, that DeAngelo may be the best back in the NFL.
Gruden said there's a "debate" about that title in the NFL, but then left the unmistakable impression that he thought the Panthers' No.34 was indeed the best. When fellow MNF announcers Mike Tirico and Ron Jaworski teased Gruden about it, asking if his "sources" had ever heard of Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, Gruden stuck firm to his guns. He also said that while coaching Tampa Bay he kept thinking DeAngelo was getting stopped behind the line on a 1st-and-10 and all of a sudden it was instead "2nd-and-10" or "2nd-and-5."
Gruden also sounded almost lovestruck when he said that in the crew's pregame meeting with DeAngelo he "hated to say goodnight." And MNF also put up some statistics during the game to illustrate how great DeAngelo's 2008 season was, comparing it to one season apiece by Jim Brown and O.J. Simpson (even though DeAngelo didn't make the Pro Bowl team announced in December, which we all know was a joke).
In other words, DeAngelo ain't flying under the radar anymore, although he often says he'd like that to be the case.
When you lead the NFL with 20 TDs (18 rushing) and rush for 1,515 yards (3rd in the NFL behind the Vikes' Peterson and Atlanta's Michael Turner), you're a big jet airplane, and everyone is going to see that on the radar.
Now this much is true: DeAngelo had the best season of any RB in the NFL last year, bar none. I firmly believe that. Here's why. He scored more times than Turner and Peterson, and most importantly, he fumbled ZERO times.
Peterson (a league-high 1,760 yards) was a fumbling machine, with nine. Turner (1,699 yards) had three. And every other back in the NFL's top 10 in rushing yardage had at least one fumble except San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson, who has legendary ball security. Like DeAngelo, LT had zero fumbles in 2008 (but 405 fewer yards).
This is also true: Gruden has long been a master of hyperbole. He also mentioned Monday night that he long ago nicknamed Panther WR Steve Smith "Freddy Krueger," because Smith had scared him badly twice a year for seven years at Tampa Bay. Reporters all over the NFL knew that Gruden would come up with a great "this guy is unbelievable" quote about opposing players he was about to face -- it was partly the way Gruden motivated his own team.
But now Gruden is out of coaching and has nothing really to gain by excessive praise. And DeAngelo... well, he's got to be in the conversation for "Best Back in the NFL."
The key, of course, is consistency. In his first year as a starter, he had the best season any Panther back has ever had.
And the question, of course, is can he do anything like that again?
As I've written before, I think the number of times DeAngelo scores this year will drop -- 20 is a huge number, after all, and I think teams will dare Jake Delhomme to throw inside the 10 this season. Also, it stands to reason that the second part of "Double Trouble" -- Jonathan Stewart -- may get some of those carries as well.
But DeAngelo's rushing yardage? With that explosive burst he possesses, he might hit 1,500 yards again. In this run-first, run-second offense, he's certainly going to get opportunities. And you know what?
It might even be more than 1,500. A lot more.
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