Stewart's ready to run through pain on game day
Backup running back doesn't practice on Wednesdays, but he excels when it counts.
By Charles Chandler
charlotteobserver.comPosted: Saturday, Dec. 26, 2009
12/20/09 Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart acknowledges the cheers of the fans as he runs off the field following the team's victory over the Minnesota Vikings 26-7 Sunday at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC
Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart (28) drags a Minnesota Vikings defender in the end zone while making a touchdown catch in the fourth quarter at Bank of America Stadium. The Panthers won 26-7.
It's been a weekly routine this season for Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart to sit out Wednesday practices.
He's on the injury report each week with a sore Achilles that's been bothering him for close to a year.
When the Panthers picked him 13th overall in the 2008 draft, he was recovering from toe surgery.
It's perceived locally and around the NFL that he's rarely healthy and is injury-prone.
There's a flaw in that concept, however: Of the five running backs selected in the first round of the '08 draft, Stewart is the only one who's never missed a game.
That's right, though he's missed practices aplenty, especially during minicamps, summer school and training camp, Stewart consistently has been available to the Panthers when it matters most.
“The trainers and the staff here have been working with me (on the) preparation of my body for the games,” said Stewart. “That's what really counts when it's all said and done.”
Stewart is expected to play a leading role today when the Panthers play at the New York Giants. With starting running back DeAngelo Williams hampered by a nagging ankle injury, Stewart is expected to make the second start of his career.
Already this season, he's turned in big performances in relief of Williams.
Stewart ran for 120 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries in a 16-6 win over Tampa Bay on Dec. 6, when Williams didn't play. Then after Williams had to leave at the end of the first quarter of last week's win over Minnesota, Stewart ended the Vikings' streak of 36 consecutive games without allowing a 100-yard rusher. Stewart finished with 109 yards on 25 carries and scored two touchdowns (one rushing, one receiving) to earn NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors.
“They pay us to be ready,” said Stewart. “We play to take on roles like that and to fulfill roles and to make plays. It's a performance-based game. All I want to do is perform. When the opportunity is there, you've just got to take it.”
Stewart set a Panthers rookie record with 836 yards rushing last season, but Williams' recent absences have allowed Stewart to flash even more of the multiple skills that made him a prized draft pick after his college career at Oregon.
He's big and muscular and sometimes runs over defenders, but also has the quickness and speed to scoot past them.
“He's got the burst to get going and he keeps his feet going,” said fullback Brad Hoover. “It's a motor, motor, motor. But when it comes down to contact, he's real physical. I think that's really what sets him apart from most guys in this league.”
Truth is, the Panthers have the luxury of two No.1-caliber running backs on their roster. Hoover said he doesn't think there's a drop-off regardless of whether Williams or Stewart are in the lineup.
Williams ranks eighth in the NFL with 1,117 yards, but easily could be as high as third – with only 130 more yards – if he hadn't missed playing time with his ankle injury.
Stewart ranks 17th in the league with 802 yards.
No other team has two backs among the league's top 24 rushers.
Williams' injury has enhanced the chance of him and Stewart becoming only the sixth pair of teammates in league history to rush for 1,000 yards in the same season. Stewart needs to average 99 yards in the final two games to accomplish the feat.
“That would be nice,” Stewart said. “It would mean a lot. It would really set the tone for the name (and) the brand ‘Double Trouble.'”
That's the nickname Williams and Stewart chose for themselves last season.
Running backs coach Jim Skipper said having dual 1,000-yard rushers would be good for the entire offense.
“It's a feather in the offensive line's cap, a feather for the tight ends, the fullbacks and naturally the running backs,” said Skipper.
Stewart and Williams are close friends who remain content about their shared roles in Carolina's offense, according to Stewart.
“That's the way this offense is run,” he said. “We understand it and we agree to it.”
Despite Stewart's once-weekly absence from practice, Skipper said Stewart stays mentally sharp because of his diligence to prepare via film and playbook study and attentiveness in meetings.
“No doubt about it, he's a professional,” said Skipper. “I can bank on him. He's not going to make a mental error. We're not perfect, but you can bank on him. I have no fear when he's out there as far as mental assignments are concerned.”
Stewart had to overcome preseason concerns about his Achilles injury in order to keep his game-day durability streak intact. He said there were times during training camp when he wondered if his season would be adversely affected.
“Whenever you can't go in practice, you always wonder, ‘How long is this going to last? How long can I bear with the pain?'” he said.
“The main thing is finding some kind of mental state where you're thinking positive, just trusting God, really. That's pretty much what this season, for me at least, has said, that the grace of God is with me.”
Stewart said he's learned to live – and play – with the pain in his Achilles, which he said is no better now than it was in the summer.
“If you punch a punching bag over and over and over, the first couple of times the skin is going to bleed, but after a while, it's like your skin develops extra skin and it becomes tougher,” said Stewart.
It helped that trainers came up with the plan for him to sit out Wednesday practices each week to recover from the previous week's game and to let his body rest and heal for the upcoming game.
“It just seemed to make more sense to have me miss practice and let me recuperate … rather than going in full blast and missing a couple of days toward the end of the week, then getting it frozen up and having to start it back over again for Sunday,” said Stewart.
Hoover said while the Panthers would love to have Stewart at practice more regularly, they're grateful he continues to show up big in games.
“It just shows how professional he is … and how he goes about his work,” said Hoover.
“(It shows) the determination he has to get on the field. And he comes to play, there's no question about that.”