CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In his first trip back to the stadium where he tore three knee ligaments a year ago, Daunte Culpepper immediately sought out the man who leveled the hit that changed his career.
"I walked up to Chris Gamble and I told him, 'Thank you,"' said Culpepper after his new team, the Miami Dolphins, lost to the Carolina Panthers 19-10 on Thursday. "If he hadn't hit me like that, I probably wouldn't be here right now. I was very excited to come back to the city of Charlotte and I was glad to go out and show people it really isn't an issue."
Culpepper looked sharp less than 10 months after the devastating injury and five months after his trade from Minnesota. He completed 14 of 19 passes for 130 yards in one half of work, but the Dolphins (1-2) couldn't get into the end zone in the first half.
"I'm getting more and more comfortable every day," Culpepper said. "I like what we did tonight. We wanted to capitalize a little bit more in the red zone, but for the most part we were very physical. We want to send a message that we're going to be a physical offense."
Culpepper showed quickness and avoided at least two sacks, rushing twice for 11 yards and helping the Dolphins twice get deep into Carolina territory. But Chris Draft stuffed Ronnie Brown on a fourth-and-goal from the 1, and Thomas Davis made an open-field tackle on Wes Welker to force Olindo Mare's 23-yard field goal.
A telling moment for Culpepper came when he scrambled out of the pocket and ran into the open field for eight yards, sliding before he could be hit.
"I said 'get down' probably 80 times in eight yards," Dolphins coach Nick Saban said.
Rookie DeAngelo Williams returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown as Carolina won despite being outgained 323 yards to 145.
Williams, the 27th pick in the draft, had been pressing the Panthers' coaching staff for a chance to return kicks as he plays behind starting running back DeShaun Foster.
Williams fielded the kick, cut to the right, broke a tackle to get to the right sideline and was gone. No Dolphins defender came close to catching the speedy Williams. Coach John Fox met him as he ran off the field, grabbed his helmet and hugged him.
"The guys got upset with me last week for bouncing it out and I told them I would hit the hole no matter what this week," Williams said.
Williams, who set an NCAA career record by with 7,573 all-purpose yards at Memphis, also made plays as a running back. His stutter-step and quick cut faked out Travares Tillman on the way to a 15-yard gain in the third quarter. It led to John Kasay's 53-yard field goal that put Carolina (3-0) ahead 16-10.
"He's got good bursts, good acceleration, excellent vision and he's got a second gear you as you saw when he popped through on that kickoff," Fox said.
Williams had nine carries for 41 yards, but Carolina's first-team offense struggled. Jake Delhomme was just 6-for-15 for 58 yards and failed to lead Carolina to a touchdown in nearly three quarters.
The Panthers, who again played without injured receiver Steve Smith, didn't pick up a first down until 3:33 left in the second quarter and Delhomme was sacked twice.
"We were a little lethargic to be honest," Fox said. "Typically that happens the week you break (training) camp."
Smith's comeback from a strained left hamstring was derailed this week thanks to an ingrown toenail.
"Certainly we would love to have him back, and he'll be back shortly, but still we should have been sharper in every area," Delhomme said.
Joey Harrington replaced Culpepper to start the third quarter, and immediately led the Dolphins on a 76-yard touchdown drive, capped by his 6-yard pass to Chris Chambers. It was the first touchdown allowed by Carolina's first-team defense in more than five quarters.
Harrington did little after that, finishing 7-for-14 for 66 yards. Chambers had seven catches for 67 yards, but Brown was held to 27 yards on 13 carries.
Panthers outside linebacker Nai'l Diggs suffered what appeared to be Carolina's first significant injury of the preseason. Diggs injured his right knee while playing on the punt team in the first quarter. Diggs was eventually taken into the locker room on a cart and did not return. He's scheduled to undergo an MRI on Friday.
|DeAngelo Williams gets a warm reception from John Fox after he scores on a 98-yard kickoff return. (AP)|
|FG||John Kasay 45 Yd, 12:06. Drive: 4 plays, 9 yards in 1:55.|
|FG||Olindo Mare 23 Yd, 6:16. Drive: 8 plays, 42 yards in 4:09.|
|TD||DeAngelo Williams, 98 Yd kick return (John Kasay kick is good), 6:03.|
|FG||John Kasay 43 Yd, 0:45. Drive: 10 plays, 47 yards in 3:06.|
|TD||Chris Chambers, 6 Yd pass from Joey Harrington (Olindo Mare kick is good), 10:03. Drive: 11 plays, 76 yards in 4:57.|
|FG||John Kasay 53 Yd, 7:01. Drive: 7 plays, 33 yards in 3:02.|
|FG||John Kasay 26 Yd, 1:56. Drive: 7 plays, 20 yards in 2:18.|
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