By the time this season is over, Jonathan Stewart could be the Carolina Panthers’ all-time leading rusher.
That should make Stewart the best running back in franchise history. Better than Fred Lane and Tshimanga Biakabutuka, who each previously held the team record. Even better, than DeAngelo Williams, who, for the time being, is Carolina’s leading rusher.
Stewart needs 1,033 yards to surpass Williams, who gained 6,846 yards while playing for Carolina from 2006 through 2014. It is extremely surprising that Stewart could be the best back in franchise history and the team’s all-time leading rusher.
It wasn’t that Stewart, a first-round pick in 2008, lacked talent. He’s always had plenty of that. But, the knock on the former Oregon Duck from the moment he entered the NFL was that he was injury prone. He had a foot injury that dated back to college, and there has been a steady stream of problems since then. In the last four years alone, Stewart has missed 28 regular-season games with foot and ankle injuries.
Stewart also spent the first seven years of his career in a rotation with Williams. It was always clear that Williams got more playing time.
But, somehow and some way, Stewart has persevered through the injuries and is about to claim his spot in the team’s record book.
“It’s good to see,’’ coach Ron Rivera said. “I don’t think people give him the credit for how hard he works and how good he is.’’
That’s very true. Stewart is one of the league’s most underrated players. Blame it on the injuries or on the way he’s had to share carries for most of his career. Or blame it on Stewart’s personality. He is one of the quietest Panthers and shies away from attention. Stewart is unselfish, which was a major reason why the tandem with Williams usually worked well.
“He’s the type of guy everyone needs on their team,’’ running backs coach Jim Skipper said.
When it came time to choose between Williams and Stewart, the Panthers shocked and angered many of their fans by letting Williams leave for Pittsburgh. But they knew what they were doing. As the primary ball-carrier last season, he was well on his way to 1,000 yards before a foot injury caused him to miss the final three regular-season games.
“That’s why we stuck with him,’’ Rivera said. “That’s why we’ve done the things we’ve done to put him in the position to be our featured back now.’’
But the normal wear and tear for any running back, coupled with Stewart’s durability issues, are reasons for concern. That’s why the Panthers took a unique approach with him in training camp and the preseason. They used him very lightly in camp and the preseason games.
“There’s no reason to expose him,’’ Rivera said.
That’s fine with Stewart, who says he feels healthier now than he has in a long time.
“When you’re working you have to find different ways to work without putting your body through a lot of stress,’’ Stewart said. “But I feel pretty good. This is my ninth year. I feel like it’s my fifth year.’’
That’s good news for the Panthers. If Stewart can stay healthy, the running game will be very good. If he stays healthy, the Panthers will have a new all-time leading rusher, and a new best running back in franchise history.