After two straight seasons out of the playoffs, Fox was determined to transform the Panthers into the ball-control, run-oriented team he's comfortable with.
Enter Smash and Dash.
"Smash and Dash, they ran the ball hard," said Steve Smith, who caught nine passes for 117 yards and a touchdown but was overshadowed by the two dynamic backs. "Man, you can't say enough good things about them."
Consider all the records set while shredding the Buccaneers, who had allowed only one rushing TD in their first 12 games:
» Williams ran for a career-high and team-record 186 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries.
» Stewart had 115 yards and two scores on 15 carries, making them only the sixth set of backs since 1960 to each have over 100 yards and two TDs in a game, according to STATS LLC.
» The Panthers rushed for 299 yards -- including Jake Delhomme kneeling twice for minus-2 yards to end the game. That eclipsed the team record of 264 yards set a month ago against Detroit.
» Williams surpassed that elusive 1,000-yard mark with a 40-yard burst in the second quarter. With 1,141 yards, he joins Stephen Davis (1,444 in 2003) and Anthony Johnson (1,120 in 1996) on Carolina's short list of running success.
With Stewart sitting on 699 yards, the Panthers have an outside chance to have only the fifth set of teammates to go over 1,000 yards in the same season.
"Both of those backs have been special for us," Fox said. "They're a big reason that we're sitting with the record we have. They've done a perfect job."
After being held under 100 yards rushing in half their games last season, the Panthers released fumble-prone DeShaun Foster and promoted Williams to starter. They drafted Stewart with the 13th pick, and gambled by sending their 2009 first-round pick to Philadelphia to take jumbo right tackle Jeff Otah 19th overall.
To illustrate how far they've come, the Panthers rushed for 40 yards on 20 carries in a 27-3 loss at Tampa Bay in October.
"The front five, (fullback) Brad Hoover, tight ends blocking, everybody did their part," Stewart said. "Steve Smith was a great blocker. Everybody did their job."
Stewart and Williams seem content to share the carries and glory. The two even did choreographed dances on the sidelines after each of their four TDs.
In the last six games, Williams has five 100-yard rushing games and has scored 11 touchdowns. Stewart has gone over 100 yards twice with three scores.
"I'm so excited about our offensive line and our fullback," Williams said. "And our wide receivers blocking downfield enabled us to make those long runs."
But Williams and Stewart got plenty of their yards Monday after contact, putting a twist on that Smash and Dash moniker.
While the 5-foot-9, 217-pound Williams is the smaller, shiftier back, he can carry tacklers, too. The 5-foot-10, 235-pound Stewart is stockier and more of a straight-ahead runner, but he already has a 43-yard run this season.
"DeAngelo and Stewart both made guys miss on the outside," Delhomme said. "Really good running backs do that. I think they're both really good."
The win propelled the Panthers to the second-best record in the NFC, trailing the New York Giants (11-2). Provided they beat Denver and improve to 8-0 at home Sunday, the Panthers' visit to the Giants on Dec. 21 -- moved to a night game Tuesday to be nationally televised by NBC -- could be for the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.
Come January, when the weather is unpredictable and the football more physical, the Panthers would seem to be well positioned with Smash and Dash in the backfield.
"That's what we tried to build around. We have the people to do it," Fox said. "We're going to try to do it more consistently moving forward."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press