CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart reminded teammates, fans and upcoming opponents just how dangerous he is with the ball in his hands, rushing for two touchdowns in Carolina’s 28-16 preseason win over the Kansas City Chiefs.
Now he has to prove he can stay healthy.
Stewart ran for 3,500 yards and 26 touchdowns in his first four seasons, but ankle and foot injuries limited the former first-round pick to 15 games over the last two seasons and his production has fallen off dramatically.
But if Sunday night was any indication, Stewart could be back in a big way.
He only ran for 26 yards on four carries, but his explosive 17-yard burst and his two TDs has Panthers coach Ron Rivera brimming with confidence when discussing a potential running attack that includes DeAngelo Williams, Stewart and Pro Bowl fullback Mike Tolbert.
Rivera said the Panthers have the potential to be “dynamic” if Stewart can stay healthy.
In 2008, Williams and Stewart became the first NFL running back duo to each run for 1,100 yards in the same season.
Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil has defended Stewart over the years, even as fans on Twitter and local sports talk radio ridiculed the running back for routinely missing practices and games.
“When he does get back out there you realize why he is so special and why you keep giving him chances to come back,” Kalil said.
Kalil said the 5-foot-10, 235-pound Stewart runs as hard as any back in the league.
“I’ve played so many games with him and watched so much film, you see a guy that people want to keep fighting and fighting for,” Kalil said. “I think he is such a huge part of our running game and it’s great to have him out there.”
Stewart missed the start of training camp after straining hamstring again raising questions about his durability.
But he said at the time he wasn’t worried the hamstring and was actually encouraged that his ankle felt better than they had in three years.
It was Stewart’s 17-yard run that sparked a stagnant Carolina offense on Sunday night and led to two straight touchdowns drives. Stewart showed his strength when he bounced off a defender to found the end zone in the second quarter on a 2-yard scoring run.
“He doesn’t go down,” Kalil said. “He fights for every yard. I think with that you get some of the nicks and knacks that he gets. The guy just fights and fights and fights. I know it kills him to not be able to stay out there all the time, but it is part of the game.”
Stewart said he’s excited about the season.
“It’s been a while since I’ve touched the end zone,” Stewart said.
Stewart’s health could potentially impact how the team uses quarterback Cam Newton in the running game.
Newton has run for 2,032 yards and 28 touchdowns over the past three seasons – more than any other NFL quarterback – but Rivera has indicated he wants to reduce the wear and tear on Newton’s body.
That doesn’t mean the Panthers won’t keep working on the read option in practice and use it some this season.
“We’ll develop it until (Newton) is ready to go,” Rivera said. “Until then you will see what you see, and this is our offense. If we can use our backs effectively enough where he we don’t have to rely on him running we would certainly much rather do that.”