Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart’s lengthy medical history got a little longer this week.
The Panthers will be without their top back for this week’s game against undefeated Minnesota – and probably longer.
Head coach Ron Rivera said Stewart would miss “at least a week or two” after injuring his right hamstring Sunday in the first quarter against the San Francisco 49ers.
When he met with the media Monday afternoon, Rivera said he hadn’t heard the results of Stewart’s MRI yet. Stewart expressed at least a bit of optimism when he spoke with Rivera at Bank of America Stadium.
“We’ll see how severe,” Rivera said. “He said he felt pretty good walking around when I ran into him just a second ago. He literally just got back from the MRI.”
But Rivera understands how hamstring injuries can linger.
Backup safety Dean Marlowe partially tore his hamstring at training camp and missed the next six weeks. Marlowe aggravated the injury in his first game back Sunday against the 49ers, and Rivera said Marlowe’s status “didn’t sound good, either.”
Stewart hasn’t played a full season since signing a five-year, $36.5 million contract extension in 2012. Most of his issues have been foot- and ankle-related.
Stewart, 29, was a workhorse in 2015 during the Panthers’ Super Bowl season. He carried a career-high 242 times and fell 11 yards short of his second 1,000-yard season despite sitting the final three games with a foot injury.
The Panthers were cautious with Stewart after wrapping up the NFC South last season, hoping to keep him rested for the playoffs.
Fozzy Whittaker rushed for 100 yards on 16 carries in Stewart’s absence in the 46-27 victory over the 49ers.
Rivera said he’s confident in the backup backfield committee of Whittaker, Mike Tolbert and Cameron Artis-Payne. But Rivera left open the possibility of bringing in a free agent back if Stewart is out for an extended period.
“We’ve got some good backs,” wide receiver Philly Brown said. “Hopefully Stew comes back, though – quick. But Fozzy and those boys are good.”
Stewart was injured on a running play with six minutes left in the opening quarter when the 49ers got good penetration up the middle. Stewart cut outside and his right cleat seemed to stick in the ground as he was swarmed over by three defenders.
The Panthers, who had Artis-Payne on the inactive list, were down to one back briefly in the second quarter when Whittaker was evaluated for a concussion. But Whittaker was cleared and ended up posting his first 100-yard rushing game since he was a senior in high school.
Rivera said he was a little nervous when Stewart and Whittaker left in short succession.
“We were fortunate enough that we’re deep at that position because Tolbert was the next man up,” Rivera said. “That’s the unfortunate part of this game is somebody’s going to get nicked and hopefully it’s nothing serious.”
Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said Whittaker’s performance epitomized the next-man-up mentality that exists in every NFL locker room.
“In this league people don’t feel sorry for you. Injuries happen, as we saw on the fly with Fozzy. The next guy’s got to be ready,” Olsen said. “You’ve got to go and Fozzy did a great job. We’ll get (Artis-Payne) some reps this week and get him ready to go. And obviously Tolbert. We’ve got some guys that can fill in and hopefully get Stew back quick.”