The first time Carolina Panthers left guard Trai Turner can remember running back Jonathan Stewart breaking loose, he was a rookie in spring practices, and he didn’t really see it.
No, it was more of a feeling. A whooshing, wind-tunnel type sensation, said Turner. If the wind tunnel kind of rattled the ground under his feet, and clacked pads and drove legs and bit dirt up with the pegs on his cleats, that is.
All the running back told Turner back then was this: “I just need a little crease. That’s it. Just a little crease.”
“Then, whoosh,” said Turner.
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So that’s all Turner has tried to give him these three years, and in a Monday night walloping of the Miami Dolphins, he pulled where he could and stuck where he should alongside his teammates, and Stewart had his first 100-yards-plus game this season – a rare season of health for the back, but also one fraught with closed holes and filled gaps, and fumbles, too.
The lesson from Monday night
The first time rookie running back Christian McCaffrey ever saw Stewart run, he was sitting in front of a screen, tapping buttons and toggling joysticks as a digitized Stewart was running around, over and through opposing players.
“Oh, I played him as a video game character when I was like 12,” said McCaffrey, who contributed a rushing and a receiving touchdown to the Panthers’ 45-21 whoop-up on Miami Monday night.
“Because he’s a great player. He’s a great back. It’s kind of cool sharing a backfield with him now.”
From Stewart – others too, but McCaffrey said he played as Stewart a lot – the young budding back got the chance, in a way, to learn a lot about the types of things Stewart did Sunday night, on his way to 110 yards (his most in a game since last season against Washington), including a season-long of 18.
If Stewart couldn’t get up the gut, he was going around the edge – tiptoeing at times to seal it and stay in-bounds for those extra yards. If he couldn’t go up the gut or around the edge, he was going right over somebody – and he did, leaping over a Dolphins defender as he barreled downfield in the second half.
He ran angry, he ran smart. He ran with patience when he had to. Those are things McCaffrey can keep learning from Stewart, but perhaps it isn’t the most important thing.
Perhaps the most important thing Stewart will teach McCaffrey – and the rest of his teammates, for that matter – is how to respond when you don’t like yourself very much, after you make mistakes.
How to keep showing up to work, putting a foot in front of the other again and again until all of the sudden, you’re through your crease and there’s starry sky, a roaring crowd and open field ahead of you.
Stewart messed up badly against Atlanta, with two fumbles that could very well have changed the course of Carolina’s season had they aided in a Panthers loss.
“I was definitely hard on myself,” said Stewart. “That was one of my first times, really, experiencing that type of deal. ... To know that I contributed to two fumbles last week, that stung me. You feel like you let your team down...I had to deal with that for the whole week.”
Quieting the chatter
People chattered after about phasing Stewart out, or replacing him altogether.
Head coach Ron Rivera said Stewart took it personally. The running back showed up to meetings and practices every day last week determined to change the narrative.
“A lot of people said some things about him and Jonathan just wanted to make sure everybody understood,” said Rivera. “I think, first of all, he came back and you could see it on his face. There was a little bit of resolve. ... He blamed himself. Even though we won the game, he took it very, very hard.
“You saw the competitiveness of who he is come out.”
A locker away, McCaffrey is, like Stewart, a professional (albeit a young one).
He’s sharing a backfield with Stewart in real life, and not in a kid’s game – but that doesn’t mean he has no lessons left to learn.
Maybe if and when he faces adversity in his career, McCaffrey, now tandem with Stewart as the lead pass-catching back in Carolina’s system (who also broke Stewart’s 2011 receiving yards record on Monday night), will not dwell so much on those troubles.
Maybe he’ll remember how Stewart showed up every day to work last week, and how he showed up on Monday night.