Jonathan Stewart was in high school when he began to realize he was much more powerful than the players he was going up against on the field.
He read the autobiography of Walter Payton, one of the NFL’s greatest running backs and one of its hardest rushers ever. He came away knowing that’s the kind of runner he wanted to become.
“That was the time when I started to really gain an understanding of the game,” Stewart said. “I read his book and things people said about him as a runner. I said that’s the mentality that I want to have: not to be tackled by one person.”
Now eight years into the league with the Carolina Panthers, Stewart is one of the NFL’s toughest backs to bring down at first contact.
Stewart has rushed 79 times this season entering Sunday night’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles, and he’s broken 20 tackles. That’s tied for the second-most in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.
He has a thick lower body and the strength in his chest and arms to fight off tacklers who go high. He takes pride in keeping his legs churning for more yards. His style gives life to his offensive teammates and demoralizes defenses.
At 5-foot-10 and 235 pounds, Stewart has taken the words from Payton’s autobiography and put them into practice nearly three decades after Payton retired from the game.
“Never die easy,” Payton wrote in his book, which was published two years after his death in 1999. “Why run out of bounds and die easy? Make that linebacker pay. It carries into all facets of your life. It’s OK to lose, to die, but don’t die without trying, without giving it your best.”
Stewart’s powerful style made him a high school legend in the state of Washington.
He amassed 7,755 rushing yards in his four years at Timberline High and was one of the country’s most sought-after recruits in 2005. His commitment to the University of Oregon helped spark the Ducks’ recent football success.
Panthers tight end Ed Dickson said his first memory of Stewart was thinking “he’s a manchild who’s running over defensive ends who are 290 pounds.”
Stewart admits he was into strong man competitions in college. His lower-body power was evident by maxing out at 615 pounds on squats and the leg press.
But he also displayed his upper-body strength by power-cleaning 402 – second on the Ducks to 330-pound defensive tackle Haloti Ngata.
Stewart had speed, too, running a 4.38-second 40-yard dash at one point in college. His sophomore season he had 981 rushing yards, and in the offseason Chip Kelly joined the staff as the offensive coordinator.
The next season Stewart ran for 1,722 yards.
The secret? Kelly just gave Stewart the ball.
“We used him often,” Kelly, now the head coach of the Eagles, said this week. “That’s what I thought the most important thing with J. Stew was to get him the ball. He went for 1,700 yards. I think you forget about how fast he is.
“He can run inside. He can run outside. Very rarely does the first guy bring him down because he is just such a physical runner, but he’s got speed. That is why he was a first-round draft pick and that is why he has been successful at this level.”
A young 28
Through his first four seasons, Stewart missed just two regular-season games, because of a concussion. In his fifth and sixth years, Stewart would miss more games than he played.
Ankle and knee injuries plagued Stewart in 2012 and 2013. Stewart played in nine games in 2012 because of ankle injuries that eventually required surgery on both ankles in the offseason.
He began the 2013 season on the physically unable to perform list, played in six games, then missed the following four games with a knee injury.
That earned Stewart a label – injury-prone – that clearly agitated him.
“I’m not even going to talk about it,” Stewart said this week. “It’s in the past. I’m healthy. We’re good.”
After the 2013 season Stewart started doing yoga as an alternative workout to help prevent the injuries. Since then, he’s missed three of Carolina’s 23 games.
Stewart has been one of the most effective runners in the league since Week 13 of the 2014 season. In 12 games he’s rushed for 977 yards. Only Baltimore’s Justin Forsett has more rushing yards, and he’s played one more game than Stewart.
At 28, Stewart runs much younger than he is. There was the missed time, but he also split carries for the first seven years of his career with DeAngelo Williams.
Stewart guesses he’s closer to 21 in running back years.
“I think that’s a blessing in disguise,” Stewart said. “I live in the now. I live in the present. I definitely, definitely think that has given me extra years splitting time with DeAngelo, and it’s given him time as well. And the time I haven’t been able to play and now that I’m healthy, I definitely think it’s given me an extra boost.”
When Stewart rushes, it’s almost as if he invites contact, just like Walter Payton did.
“If I’m going to get hit,” Payton once said, “why let the guy who’s going to hit me get the easiest and best shot? I explode into the guy who’s trying to tackle me.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera played with Payton for the Bears in the ’80s, and he says he sees similarities to Stewart.
“(Payton) was unbelievable,” Rivera said of the player who retired as the league’s all-time leading rusher. “Scratching and clawing and using his arms and hands to keep himself going. It’s interesting because backs like that set the tone and tempo for your team. And what really stood out on some of the running plays we had last week (against Seattle) was how hard he ran and not wanting to be tackled.”
Stewart rushed 20 times for 78 yards and two touchdowns. He had an average of just 3.9 yards per carry and a long of 11 yards, but he fought for almost every yard.
Also working against Stewart was how often Seattle loaded up the box, the area of the defense at and near the line of scrimmage, with eight players. Seventeen of Stewart’s rushes happened away from goal line situations, and on 11 of those rushes he faced an eight-man box. He got 54 yards on those carries.
Twice he even faced a nine-man box, getting just 1 yard.
Seattle, and other opponents, can devote so many to stopping the run because the Panthers’ lack of receiving weapons. Teams have dared Cam Newton and the Panthers to beat them through the air.
“I think Stew is just being who he is and who he’s been all year,” Newton said. “It wasn’t always pretty from the overlay of watching film, if you were to press pause during the pre handoff, there wasn’t necessarily a hole there. But when Stew gets a hard 4, hard 6 yards, it makes second-and-4 or third-and-short extremely easy with so much to do in your playbook.”
Rivera said it’s good when a team can still get yards on the ground against a defense that knows you want to run the ball. Add Stewart breaking tackles and getting yards after contact, and that can be demoralizing for a defense.
Panthers safety Roman Harper, who for years tried to tackle Stewart twice a year as a member of the New Orleans Saints, knows.
“It was always tough because you knew, you didn’t want to hit him too low because he has a thick lower body, but you know his speed is what throws you off,” he said. “He’s deceptively fast. He’s powerful. He goes to the whistle and breaks tackles.
“He’s one of those backs who’s very dangerous because he’s not very tall so you don’t have a lot of surface area to hit him up high. And down low is where all his power’s at.
“He’s very tough to bring down.”
A hulking presence
While in Los Angeles this summer with friends, Stewart made a video of himself imitating the Incredible Hulk while in the pool, pounding the water as he flexed his large biceps.
The comic book character mirrors Stewart in some ways. If he’s the Hulk on the field, he’s Bruce Banner off it.
Stewart is a cool Pacific Northwesterner who doesn’t let his emotions get too high or too low. Banner, the Hulk’s alter ego, is mild-mannered but always gave the warning that “you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”
When breaking tackles, Stewart said he can sense himself hulking up.
“I definitely feel that,” Stewart said. “Once I feel me moving around guys, I definitely feel stronger.”
Panthers offensive coordinator likened Stewart to a quiet storm because of his relaxed temperament but violent style of rushing.
“He’s got that,” Shula said before pausing.
“You don’t want to get him mad.”