Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart has gained 516 rushing yards and scored one touchdown on the ground. No, not in his last two games but over the last two seasons.
A preseason right ankle injury hobbled Stewart in 2012. He played in nine games, but he was never 100 percent. While trying to play through the pain, he injured his other ankle (a high-ankle sprain) during a Week 11 game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Stewart fought to play again, but he was unable to do so.
On Jan. 11, Stewart went under the knife to fix his left ankle. It was reported later by ESPN.com analyst Pat Yasinskas that both ankles were surgically repaired in the offseason.
Stewart started the 2013 season on the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list, as he battled back into shape. He was activated and inserted into action for Carolina’s Week 8 game against the Atlanta Falcons, but Stewart was limited as the team tried to keep his ankles fresh. In Week 14 against the New Orleans Saints, Stewart tore the MCL in his right knee. He fought to play again during the Panthers’ playoff run, but he was never able to break into the lineup.
During the offseason leading up to organized team activities in 2014, Stewart took up yoga three times a week, according to the Black and Blue Review, and he spent time in Portland, Oregon being treated like a baby, while strengthening his lower body at ADAPT Training.
Babies climb on things. Babies learn how to walk. They crawl. They walk sideways. It really forces your body to learn how to function properly. Stuff like that really helped get me back into the rhythm of things working out,” Stewart said.
This non-traditional training has seemed to have paid off. Stewart has been an active participant in Carolina’s offseason workout program, and he feels better now than he has in an extremely long time.
"Very excited about having Jonathan on the field," coach Ron Rivera said on June 12, as reported by David Newton of ESPN.com. "He's healthy again. He's moving the way we need him to move. I like what we're getting out of him.
"Even Jonathan is saying this is the first time he's been healthy [in a while]. So that's a good thing."
Stewart only missed two games during the first four years of his tenure with the Panthers. During that span, the healthy running back put up back-to-back 10-touchdown seasons, averaged 4.8 yards per carry and even posted a 47-catch 2011 season.
|Jonathan Stewart: 2008-2013|
|Pro Football Reference|
Between 2012-2103, Stewart only played in 15 of 23 regular-season games. He averaged just 3.7 yards per carry and had just one rushing and one receiving touchdown.
The Panthers absolutely must have the healthy version of Stewart in 2014. Not only because the output he could provide will have a profound effect, but because the Panthers are paying him a king’s ransom.
According to Spotrac, Stewart’s $4.59 million cap hit this season ranks as the 11th highest in the NFL. DeAngelo Williams’ cap hit is $6 million (ranked eighth in the NFL). The Panthers are dishing out a lot of money to their running backs in 2014.
Did anyone just verbally abuse former general manager Marty Hurney after reading that last paragraph?
Because Stewart’s contract was restructured in 2013, his 2014 base salary of $1.5 million is fully guaranteed, the Black and Blue Review reported. Carolina would have major troubles cutting Stewart because there would be so much dead money left behind it would cripple the team’s efforts from a salary-cap standpoint.
Stewart is going to be on this Carolina roster in 2014, and as he’s as healthy as he’s been since 2011, he’ll need to put up numbers similar to his first four seasons with the team.
With Carolina's wide receiver corps and offensive line huge question marks heading into the 2014 season, Stewart, in addition to Mike Tolbert and Williams, is going to have to be a healthy producer for the offense to score points like it did a year ago.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.
Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.