ESM EXCLUSIVE: Former NFL RB Stephen Davis comments on the modern state of football

7 Sep 1997: Running back Stephen Davis #48 of the Redskins carries the football during the Redskins 14-13 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Mandatory Credit: Robert Laberge /Allsport

Former NFL running back and three-time Pro Bowler Stephen Davis sat down with ESM to talk about the past, present, and future of football.

(This interview was made possible through

Stephen Davis knows a thing or two about making the New York Giants feel a little downtrodden.

Formerly of the Washington Football Team, Davis often made the most of a yearly pair with Big Blue, the most recent edition of which wraps up on Sunday afternoon (1 p.m. ET, Fox). The Giants particularly felt the wrath of Davis during his formal introduction to the mainstream football fan in 1999. A fourth-round pick out of Auburn in 1996, Davis’ first years were spent sharing carries in a fullback’s role with veteran Terry Allen. Granted a chance to shine, upon Allen’s transfer to New England, Davis exploded for 1,405 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns, headlining Washington’s 10-6 season and NFC East title. That trek started with Davis tallying three first quarter touchdowns in a 50-21 win over the Giants in Week 2 at Giants Stadium before following it up with a then-career-best 183 yards in the rematch nine weeks later. The 858 yards he gained over 15 matchups with New York (8-6-1) were his second-best tally against any opponent except Arizona (1,089 yards in 17 games).

Retired from on-field activities since 2008, Davis comes in peace when it comes to the Giants, offering advice as to how his former rivals could snap their streak of ineptitude that continues to show itself in the form of a 1-7 record in 2020.

“Any time you have a team that’s not doing so well, you have to get back to the basics: be consistent, be physical, be a team instead of individuals,” Davis said in an exclusive conversation with ESM. “Everybody thinks it’s easy, and it’s not easy at all. You have to be a team, you have to have that team chemistry. You have to have everybody on the same page, and the players have to buy into it.”

To demonstrate his points, Davis brought up the example of Dutch Fork High School, where his son Stephen Jr. spent his gridiron career as a linebacker and free safety before moving on to North Carolina A&T. The team had struggled in football since its 1992 founding, but later bought into a system established by the arrival of a new head coach in 2010. Two years later, they were state champions.

“All the kids bought into it. They’re not the best athletes. You look at them, you’d go ‘he played football?’. But all the kids bought into (the coach’s system),” Davis explained. “It’s amazing, it’s human nature. When kids buy into something and adults buy into something and everybody’s buying into the system, it’ll work.”

Those are wise words from a locker room leader, one that paved the way for success in both Washington and Carolina. After his time in the nation’s capital came to an end, Davis moved on to a Carolina Panthers team two years removed from a 1-15 record. Davis united with head coach and former Giants defensive coordinator John Fox to create a culture change amongst youngsters and veterans alike, earning an 11-5 ledger and a Super Bowl berth for the first in franchise history. The rusher did his part with a career-high 1,444 rushing yards.

It’s an incident during the 2001 season in Washington, however, that stands out as a moment of team cohesion, a moment where a unified rally led to something special on the field. That season’s endeavor saw the team start off 0-5, the stretch capped off with an infamous Monday night showing against an equally winless squad from Dallas.

“We were trying to find our footing, we were trying to do everything we could to possibly win a game,” Davis recalled. “We might’ve been in the lead, something bad would happen, then we’d lose the game. But we started 0-5, then went 5-0. Missed the playoffs by one game. The difference was getting in here. We were resisting what (head coach Marty Schottenheimer) was trying to do. It took one of our team leaders to come and say ‘we can’t keep doing this, we can’t keep doing what we’re doing’. Then everybody started buying in and it turned around.”

Washington finished that season 8-8, but Schottenheimer was fired in favor of college football legend Steve Spurrier during the offseason. A sloppy 7-9 regression followed, giving Davis a lesson in consistency and how important faith in a head coach is in what became his final season in burgundy.

“You’ve got to always try, whenever you can, to buy into what the coach is doing.”

Even as one of the first prominent names of the 21st century NFL, Davis’ dominance feels almost dated with the NFL becoming more of a passing league. Teams have been discouraged from drafting running backs high and offering them maximum long-term deals, though these trends are slowly becoming nixed with the emergence of names like Saquon Barkley, Derrick Henry, Ezekiel Elliott, and Christian McCaffrey. Davis commented on the role of the modern running back in his statements to ESM, expressing admiration at the fact that rushers need to possess skills beyond the 40-yard-dash in order to warrant big contract consideration.

“They’ve got to be able to catch the ball in space. They’ve got to be able to protect the quarterback…and, clearly, run the ball,” Davis said. “It’s a lot different (today). Every (position) goes through its phases. When I was playing, it was more run-oriented. Now, you have a lot of teams that like to pass a lot. But I think it’ll get back to (rushing) once everyone figures out that offense. A defensive coach is going to figure that out, everybody’s going to go back to the old ways. It happens all the time.”

Davis feels that today’s game features “more finnesse” and also noted the increase in physicality.

“You’ve got everything more spread out, teams running with four or five wide receivers. Different sets and everything, a lot of zones with the running back and the quarterback. Back when I played, everybody was in a 4-by-5-yard box…elbows and (rear ends),” he said with a laugh. “You had to fight, you had to grind. We fought. I ran against a lot of eight or nine-man fronts.”

The game of proessional football has also changed in the fact that the NFL has opted to partake in affairs beyond their fields, namely acknowledging the nation’s ongoing reckoning with systemic racism and injustice. Davis’ former compatriots in Washington have been a major part of the movement, eschewing the controversial nickname of Redskins after over eight decades of use.

Davis had no strong opinion on the moniker, but acknowledged that “everybody feels certain ways on certain things”.

“The Redskins has been a name for a very long time. Getting used to that now, it’s hard, but you’ve got to deal with it,” he said. “Anytime when someone feels like they’re being racially profiled, you’ve got to correct, you’ve got to do something to correct. I think they’re doing a great job.”

Davis also praised players speaking for speaking out on causes that are important to them, saying that their words created a unique form of unity across the league. Combining that with the on-field innovations seen on Sundays, Davis sees a postivie outlook ahead for the game as a whole, pointing out developments on the medical and social levels as well.

“It’s great what they’re doing it. It’s not only going to help our future, but it’s going to help our younger generation that’s not even born yet,” Davis analyzed. “Have them understand the importance of teamwork. Teamwork is what you teach the guys on the football field, basketball, baseball field…you have to teach everyone how to work together to get to a common goal.”

“Football is great now. But we want to be greater in the future.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags