Jonathan Stewart is trying to strike a balance in his ninth season.
The Carolina Panthers’ starting running back is finding moderation between hard work and learning how to rest - one year after becoming the primary back for the first time in his career and after a season that stretched into February.
With injuries plaguing him the past four years - including one early in the Super Bowl against Denver - Stewart says he’s back to 100 percent healthy in training camp.
“When you’re working you have to find different ways to work without putting your body through a lot of stress,” Stewart said Wednesday at Wofford College. “But I feel pretty good. This is my ninth year. I feel like it’s my fifth year.”
Some of that might have to do with Stewart splitting carries with DeAngelo Williams for the first seven years of his career. Contributing also could be the 28 regular-season contests he’s missed in the past four years because of foot and ankle injuries.
This offseason the Panthers have stressed being smart with Stewart. He did very light work during OTAs (organized team activities) and minicamp, and he was the first player to take a veteran’s day off during training camp.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera didn’t want to set the bar high on expectations for camp. He wants Stewart to do little more than break a sweat in Spartanburg before the season starts.
“A lot like we did last year I’m going to go back and look at the play charts and see exactly what we did with him and try to stay along those lines,” said Rivera, referring to a lighter schedule for Stewart from last season. “There’s no reason to expose him.
“He’s a veteran running back who had a big year for us last year and played big leading into the playoffs, missed a few weeks but then played big once he came back.”
Stewart was well on his way last season to his second career 1,000-yard rushing season. He was 11 yards away from the mark when a foot injury sidelined him the final three games of the season.
“As long as we are really making our advances in the win column, I don’t really care,” Stewart said. “My offensive line, they really wanted me to get to that 1,000-yard mark because I know it means a lot to them. When you have a 1,000-yard rusher in the backfield it says a lot about the offensive line and everybody on that offense.”
Stewart returned from the four-week layoff as a force. He rushed for 106 yards against the Seahawks in the divisional round and gained another 83 against the Cardinals.
He was gearing up for another big day in Super Bowl 50 before his first touch ended in injury. With just more than 7 minutes left in the first quarter, Stewart got his left foot caught by a Broncos defender and he bent backward.
There was no gain on the play and Stewart went to the sideline. On the next play, Cam Newton was strip-sacked by Von Miller and the Broncos scored a touchdown.
“Just the luck of the draw,” Stewart says now with a laugh. In the Super Bowl, you have to try to play through it.
That’s what he did. He carried the ball 11 more times for just 27 yards and had one catch for a loss of a yard.
One of the first players Stewart saw after the loss was his friend Josh Bush. A former Wake Forest standout, Bush played safety for the Broncos and won his first Super Bowl ring in his four-year career.
“The first thing we did was show love to each other,” Stewart said. “At the end of the day he’s my boy. Him being a young guy and him being from Carolina and him kind of looking up to me when I came into the league, it was good to see him get the opportunity to enjoy that experience.
“It is what it is. You just go into that situation knowing that somebody’s going to come out happy and the other not happy.”
Stewart said he could either hang his head or look for the silver lining, which is, with most of the team still intact, the Panthers can make another Super Bowl run this season.
But he says it starts in training camp. This is where he’s fine-tuning his technique and conditioning. It’s where he’s working on his pass-blocking, which showed Wednesday when he went one-on-one against Luke Kuechly and was essentially a draw.
He and the Panthers know they can start strong. Now it’s about finishing.
“We had a great opening to the season and the playoffs, but ultimately we didn’t finish,” Stewart said. “I think during training camp, certain plays, pass blocking, running plays, catching, just learning how to finish and stay focused throughout.
“In certain times in practice when you get tired or whatever it is, you’ve got to finish.”