SPARTANBURG, S.C. - As he walked off the field following a day of exercising on the sidelines while his teammates practiced around him, Carolina running back Stephen Davis vowed he will play this season.
"I am positive I will play this year," he emphatically said. "And when I do, after the game I come back, I am giving you my jersey."
Excuse Davis if he's a little defensive these days.
Still recovering from microfracture surgery on his right knee, a procedure he underwent late last season when nothing else worked, Davis was unable to practice Saturday when the Panthers opened training camp and knows he has a slew of critics who doubt he can recover this year, if at all.
And they wonder if at 31 years old, Davis will ever be the same back who set Carolina's single-season rushing record two years ago with 1,444 yards.
"Age has nothing to do with it," he repeated four times in a row when asked about it Saturday.
Still, Davis knows that microfracture surgery is a difficult procedure to come back from. Running back Terrell Davis was never the same, and former Panthers Chuck Smith, Eric Swann and Patrick Jeffers never recovered, either.
"A lot of people that say it's tough to come back, they're not smart about the injury," he said. "We've been through this 1,000 times. I've just got to do what they ask you to do, be patient, and I've done that."
The Panthers have had one successful return from microfracture surgery, a procedure that drills holes into the knee cap so that fluids can settle in behind it to prevent bone from rubbing against bone. DeShaun Foster, Davis' backup, had the surgery in 2002 and missed his entire rookie season.
He returned from it the next year and was outstanding, giving Carolina a potent 1-2 punch in the backfield that the Panthers rode into the Super Bowl.
Davis said watching Foster able to play gives him confidence that he'll be back.
"Every time I go out there and see him on the field... he went through it, and everything that he went through, I was watching in '03," Davis said.
The Panthers on Friday placed Davis on the physically unable-to-perform list, saying he failed his physical and was not ready to practice. But he quickly disputed that, claiming he was never really examined because it had already been determined that he would slowly continue to rehab.
"I wouldn't say flunk it, I wouldn't say fail it... that makes it sound bad," he said. "I went in and seen the doctor and he said 'We're going to keep you out.' I said OK."
For now, he said he's targeting the third preseason game as his return date. While Davis could accept being held out the entire preseason, he said he would be disappointed if he wasn't ready by the opener. He also said he could play now if needed.
"I feel that if we had a Super Bowl game, or an important playoff game right now, I could go and play right now," he said. "The thing is, we don't want to do anything stupid and go out there and something happens. Then you would say 'What if we would have waited?' "
The Panthers can afford to go slow with Davis this preseason because of a crowded backfield.
Foster is back from the broken collarbone that shortened his season last year and they drafted running back Eric Shelton of Louisville in the second round.
Nick Goings, who started last year as the sixth-stringer and ended it with five 100-yard rushing games when he was forced into a starting role, is also in the mix. And Rod Smart (aka "He Hate Me") is back from injury.
Davis, who played eight seasons in Washington before signing as a free-agent with the Panthers, is supposed to be the No. 1 back if he returns. He carried the load in 2003, usually running the ball about 30 times a game while producing the best season of his career.
But he followed it with the worst season of his career, playing in only two games because of his knee injury. He had just 24 carries for 92 yards and was placed on injured reserve for the first time in his career.
Now, with him sidelined, he could very well lose his spot as Carolina's go-to guy. Asked if he would be content sharing the load, and cutting back his carries to about 15 a game, Davis didn't waver.
"Honestly? No," he said. "But if you give DeShaun 10 or 15 carries, and he's making plays, that's good. If you give me 10 or 15 plays and I'm making plays, that's good. If you give Eric 10 or 15 plays, that's good.
"As long as we're making plays and we're winning football games, that's all that matters."
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