SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams was ready for change after last year's miserable season. Turns out, he found it without leaving the Panthers.
Williams re-signed with the Panthers shortly after NFL free agency began, agreeing to a five-year deal worth $43 million. Williams said at Panthers camp he had other teams willing to offer as much, but felt the atmosphere had dramatically improved at Carolina.
"I know one thing, we're not going to be the team we were last year," he said. "We all have that bitter taste in our mouths and we want to get it out."
Williams made clear that started with the hiring of new coach Ron Rivera to replace longtime leader John Fox.
The 'Is what it is,' is no more," said Williams, referring to one of Fox's frequent sayings.
Williams had become one of the NFL's most dynamic backs since the Panthers drafted him in the first round in 2006. He broke out for 1,515 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2008 and followed that up a year later with 1,117 yards. Williams was poised for a similar season last year when he sprained his right foot in the fourth quarter against San Francisco during Week 6 and never saw the field again.
The Panthers struggled, finished 2-14 and showed problems everywhere on offense. The team was last in several NFL statistics, including total offense and passing. Enigmatic receiver Steve Smith publicly criticized first-year quarterback Jimmy Clausen. Williams' best choice appeared to be to take his considerable skills and run as far away as he could.
Instead, he embraced the changes he saw coming with Rivera and offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski.
"It's fun here," the playful Williams said. "There was no reason for me to go."
Williams' return means the Panthers' strong running game stays that way. He and teammate Jonathan Stewart formed one of the strongest backfield combos in the league when healthy. Carolina finished 13th in NFL rushing a year ago with Williams on the sideline and almost no reliable passing game. Both runners went past 1,100 yards two years ago, and Stewart is glad to have Williams back.
"We've got a lot of options. We're going to be explosive," he said.
It doesn't hurt, either, to bring in the players the Panthers have this offseason. They drafted Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton with the No. 1 overall pick, added tight end Jeremy Shockey before the lockout and ex-Chicago Bears tight end Greg Olsen in a trade last week. Last week, Smith made clear he wanted to remain with the Panthers.
Williams likes it all. He walked into Saturday's first practice with Newton's arm draped around him, like longtime best friends. Williams had dived quickly into Chudzinski's playbook.
"We're definitely excited. Tight ends, wide receivers and running backs? Let's go," Williams said.
Panthers guard Travelle Wharton said it was difficult with Williams hurt last year.
"That makes our job easier," he said. "DeAngelo is a great running back. Comes out and plays hard. I'm excited to have him back."
Williams hasn't yet gotten to show off at practice, adhering to the NFL rules that keep free agents from working out until Thursday at the earliest. Chudzinski brings new footwork and terminology for the Panthers' runners, and Williams is disappointed he hasn't gotten the chance to try it out on the field.
"It's still football, but it's tougher when you're on the sidelines," Williams said. "You want to be in there to get the muscle memory down."
Once he does, Williams knows he can produce the way he did before and turn the Panthers back into NFL contenders. It was only back in 2008 that Carolina won 12 games and the NFC South Division.
"It's a mindset," Williams said.
The Panthers are driven, he said, to prove they weren't last year's awful club. He expects opponents to overlook Carolina this season, much as they did three years ago.
"Pretty soon we're in the playoffs," he said.
Williams was always told the only thing permanent in life is change. So why not an amazing turnaround to the top with his old NFL team?
"That's what we're striving for," he said.