Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart has spent just as much time on an exercise bike or a trainer’s table as he has on the field in the past two years.
Dogged by ankle and knee injuries that have made him an easy target for fans, Stewart finished organized team activities this week looking as explosive as Ron Rivera had seen since becoming coach in 2011.
Stewart spent his offseason training and getting treatment on two coasts, and he hopes 2014 proves the past two seasons were an aberration.
After being bound to Charlotte and the Panthers facilities to rehab his ankles the past two offseasons, he branched out this spring.
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He took up yoga in Charlotte. An Oregon native, he trained and conditioned at ADAPT Training and Eforce Sport, both in Beaverton, Ore. And he went south to Phoenix for more than a month, on a referral from Panthers strength and conditioning coach Joe Kenn, and worked at EXOS training facility.
There, he worked with Brett Bartholomew on reintegration.
“We wanted to create and tailor a program that would get him closer to cut full speed, redirect and get the confidence back,” said Bartholomew, director of EXOS’ offseason NFL program. “We had some restrictions and we had to be cautious, but he progressed extremely well through the program.
“By the time he left here, I don’t want to say full speed, but definitely to the point that come OTAs he’d be able to put a lot more of his natural ability to use.”
Stewart worked on basics such as squats, bench press and pull-ups, plus ran with a sled and bungee resistance, and didn’t have any setbacks, Bartholomew said. Stewart’s confidence in how much he could plant and burst off his ankle grew.
“A lot of guys develop bad habits and a compensation, and that’s when you hear about how they were never really the player they were (before an injury),” Bartholomew said. “But we didn’t see any of that with Jonathan.”
Stewart, 27, had an injury history before the Panthers selected him 13th overall in the 2008 draft. He had ankle injuries during his sophomore season at Oregon and missed Oregon’s Pro Day in 2008 after surgery on his big toe.
However, he missed only two games (with a concussion) during his first four seasons.
He appeared in every game in 2009, although he was on the injury report for 15 weeks with an Achilles injury. That year he rushed for 1,133 yards, and he and DeAngelo Williams became the first running back duo in league history to rush for more than 1,100 yards each in a season.
Through the 2011 season, Stewart had 3,500 yards in four seasons, a 4.8-yards-per-carry clip. The Panthers and former general manager Marty Hurney rewarded him with a five-year, $36.5 million contract.
That’s when the injuries began.
Stewart injured his right ankle during a 2012 exhibition. He played in nine regular-season games before injuring his other ankle and missing the rest of the year.
His recovery from offseason surgery on both ankles bled into 2013. Stewart was on the physically unable to perform list until November, and one month and 180 yards later he was sidelined for the rest of the season with an MCL tear suffered against the New Orleans Saints.
In the past two years, he’s played in 17 games and rushed for 516 yards, with one rushing touchdown.
“The past is the past and you can’t really look at what last year was for me, or the year before,” Stewart said. “You can only take what you’ve learned and you can only make the best out of what’s to come.
“As far as injuries last year, I had them. Hopefully the things I’m doing now allow me to put myself in position to not get injured.”
In the past two years, Stewart has been labeled “injury-prone,” and fans have often asked if and when the team can cut him. He said he doesn’t concern himself with what others say.
“We’re not robots,” Stewart said. “Some guys in the league never get hurt. Some guys get hurt every year. Once people understand that, kudos.”
The Panthers restructured Stewart’s contract this offseason, cutting his base salary for 2014 from $1.5 million to $785,000. Stewart is due $4.25 million in base salary in 2015, and releasing him before next season would mean a $13.6 million salary cap hit, according to Spotrac.com.
The 2015 figure is the kind of money 1,000-yard rushers get.
“We don’t need him to be a 1,000-yard rusher,” said Rivera, whose team posted 100-yard rushing games in 14 of 17 games last season. “We need to be able to rush for 100 yards a game (as a team) like we did last year.
“I think that was one of the things that really helped us. We ran the ball well, we controlled the clock and controlled the pace and tempo of the game.”
Stewart believes he can get 1,000 yards in 2014, though it’s not his focus.
“I mean, that’s always a running back’s number, but at the end of the day my thing is, I just want to be in position to make plays and be a part of what we’re about to do this year,” Stewart said.