HOUSTON -- As Al Davis was considering Saturday night the Super Bowl XXXVIII confrontation between the Patriots and Panthers, he looked as much at the coaching matchup as he did the players.
No one in pro football respects players more than Davis. He long has run the player-friendly Oakland Raiders and produced five Super Bowl teams, but as a former Coach of the Year, before moving into management, he also understands the role a sharp mind can play in winning the biggest game of the year.
All week long the talk, quite correctly, centered around the strategical and motivational brilliance of Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who had orchestrated a 14-game winning streak that was the second longest in NFL history. The discussion most often involved his flexible mind and how he alters each game plan to counter the strengths of the opponent.
Little was said about the man with whom he matched wits with last night, Panthers offensive coordinator Dan Henning. But when Davis was asked about the game, it was Henning's name that came off his lips first.
"I always liked the way Henning called a game," Davis said. "Bright guy. Mixes things up very well on offense. He knows a lot about Belichick, too. They coached together. Watch what he comes up with. He plays to his team's strength and what you do."
In the case of the Panthers, that means a relentless running attack. No matter how long they might struggle to gain yards against New England's run defense, Henning and the Panthers would remain stubborn.
Unlike some teams, including New England, Henning has refused to abandon the run regardless of the score or situation. Ahead or behind, close game or blowout, the Panthers would run first, last, and often. Last night, however, many observers believed it would be the defense of the Patriots that would dictate how the Panthers might play offense.
Henning was not among those sharing that opinion, and proved correct as the Panthers performed beyond all expectations offensively, scoring 29 points and 387 total net yards in the 32-29 loss. "I am not of the philosophy [that a defense can dictate what an offense can do]," Henning said. "I believe it's the other way around. We dictate the formation, personnel in the game, the snap count.
"Do we take into consideration what's on the other side? Yes. But all they can put out there is 11. I don't know which 11 they are going to put out there and I don't know whether they're going to line them up on the odd front, the even front, the diamond front. We have to deal with whatever they throw up there, but they also have to deal with whatever we throw up there."
What Henning increasingly did not throw up there during the playoffs was the football. Carolina was one of six teams in the NFL this season that ran the ball more than they threw it, but that preference for power running became pronounced as the postseason wore on. Where Henning decided to run the ball only five times more than throw it against the Cowboys' No. 1-rated defense in an NFC wild-card game, it was a more extreme plus-15 runs against the Rams in the divisional playoff (although the Panthers won the game with a 69-yard pass to Steve Smith in overtime with St. Louis bunched at the line of scrimmage looking for DeShaun Foster to carry the ball again). Then things became even more lopsided against the Eagles in the NFC Championship game, when the Panthers ran the ball 26 more times than they threw it, including only three pass plays in the second half.
So going into last night's game it might have been logical to assume the Patriots could force the Panthers to throw, but logic seemed out the window because continuing to run even if shut down would allow Carolina to keep New England's biggest defensive assets uninvolved, and Henning understood that.
Belichick and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel did their most damage this season baffling opposing quarterbacks with combination coverages and unexpected blitzes. If a team is running the ball three out of every four plays, however, it has the effect of blunting that strategy.
New England's defense limited opposing quarterbacks to a 53 percent completion average and an efficiency rating of around 56. It led the NFL in interceptions with 29 and was second in the league in turnover ratio. There would be little reason to assume it could not do the same to Jake Delhomme, who had 20 professional starts under his belt.
Henning had to devise a way to avoid those potential problems and Davis, for one, believed he would have a plan to do just that. More than likely, that plan would take the ball out of Delhomme's hands, or at least leave it there only long enough for him to hand off to Stephen Davis or Foster, because that is the one strategy that could blunt New England's most effective playmakers: cornerbacks Ty Law and Tyrone Poole, outside linebacker Mike Vrabel, and inside linebacker Tedy Bruschi.
New England's defense scored 38 points this season, the highest total in the NFL. Bruschi returned two interceptions for touchdowns. Law had three interceptions in the AFC title game against Peyton Manning and the Colts. How does an opponent counter such playmakers? By running the ball until their tongues hang out.
Running it almost regardless of the score. Running it even if down by two touchdowns. Running it the way a body puncher keeps throwing hooks to the ribs. None of those hooks will knock out a bigger or faster opponent, but by the last few rounds that opponent will be slower and more vulnerable to a knockout punch. He will not be the same fighter in the final rounds, just like a defense will not be the same in the fourth quarter after being slammed into 25-35 times by a big back and five very big linemen.
"If we execute, we can run the ball on them," Panthers left tackle Todd Steussie said. "If we don't, we won't. They're as big a challenge as we've had all season, but we want to do what we're capable of doing.
"We're more than a grind-it-out running game, but we have certain bread-and-butter plays that really are something we try not to let anybody take us out of.
"You don't want to go somewhere else on the call sheet just for the heck of it. It's not something Coach Henning does. We enjoy that and expect that."
So going into Super Bowl XXXVIII, Steussie and his fellow linemen expected one thing of Dan Henning. They expected him to take Belichick and Crennel out of the game.
He was almost successful.