Scott Fowler

Should the Carolina Panthers bench running back Jonathan Stewart?

Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart (center, falling to ground) lost two fumbles in a three-carry span Sunday in the first quarter against Atlanta. Carolina still won, 20-17.
Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart (center, falling to ground) lost two fumbles in a three-carry span Sunday in the first quarter against Atlanta. Carolina still won, 20-17. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

The Carolina Panthers made one huge change on offense last week when they traded away Kelvin Benjamin, their leading receiver.

Now it’s time to make another.

It is time to bench Jonathan Stewart.

I am not saying that as a knee-jerk reaction simply because Stewart lost two fumbles in the span of three carries during the Panthers’ 20-17 win over Atlanta Sunday. I am saying it because Father Time chases all of us down at some point, and this season he has knocked Stewart backwards for a run of minus-two.

Stewart is 30 years old and playing in his 10th NFL season, which is more than triple the average NFL tenure. That sort of longevity is pretty incredible for any running back, but especially for one who runs between the tackles as much as Stewart does. He became the Panthers’ all-time leading rusher this season, surpassing old backfield mate DeAngelo Williams. He has had a heck of a career and I am not trying to diminish it.

stewart-intro
Jonathan Stewart (28) still has some hops, as you can see from his foggy introduction Sunday against Atlanta. Bob Leverone AP

I am also not advocating the outright release of Stewart. For one thing, it makes no sense from a salary-cap standpoint – although it would make more sense in February, when that decision will need to be revisited. Stewart can still be useful in some instances for this team and will probably make a few more critical plays as the season goes along.

11 carries, 21 yards Sunday

But if the Panthers really want to get more speed on the field – as was their public reasoning when they traded Benjamin for a couple of 2018 draft choices – then Stewart needs to play less. No. 28 is just not an explosive player any longer. Stewart has already carried the ball 121 times this season, and not once has he had a run of 20 or more yards.

In his career, Stewart has averaged a robust 4.3 yards per carry. In 2017, however, he is averaging only 2.9 yards.

Part of that is due to an offensive line that has not run-blocked well enough. But part of it is also due to Stewart not hitting holes as hard nor getting through them as fast any longer. He and Christian McCaffrey had close to the same number of carries Sunday, but McCaffrey had 15 carries for 66 yards and Stewart had 11 for 21.

Not only that, but Stewart’s best gain of the day – a 9-yarder –resulted in a lost fumble. What was tied for his second-best gain of the day – a 4-yarder – resulted in a lost fumble.

On his other nine carries, Stewart didn’t lose any fumbles but gained a total of 8 yards. (Stewart was not available to talk to the media after the game Sunday. Head coach Ron Rivera said of the two fumbles: “When he gets to churning those legs and those arms are swinging – unfortunately both times they were able to get their hands on the ball. … We will go right back and hand it to Jonathan. He is a big, physical guy and he does a great job for us.”)

stewart-dive
Jonathan Stewart scored his only rushing touchdown of the season against Tampa Bay on Oct. 29. Stewart has a career average of 4.3 yards per carry; this season he is averaging 2.9. Jeff Siner TNS

Anyone can have a bad day, of course, but Stewart is having a bad year. Remember the Philadelphia game, when he had eight carries for minus-4 yards? He has not rushed for 70 or more yards in a game all season, and this is a guy who has gone over 100 yards 14 times in a stellar career.

Quarterback Cam Newton has been the Panthers’ leading rusher the past four games, and he is the guy – not Stewart – who gets the ball in most short-yardage situations. The traditional play the Panthers like to use to start the game – running Stewart up the middle – is no longer a signature. It is a doctor’s illegible scrawl, a prescription good for nothing more than a second-and-9.

If I were the Panthers, I would start McCaffrey at tailback and continue to have him touch the ball around 20 times a game between runs and passes. Then I would give Cameron Artis-Payne a real shot at six to 10 carries a game; I didn’t understand why he never touched the ball Sunday. He runs between the tackles like Stewart and has done well in limited action when Stewart has been hurt before. Stewart could still get the ball three to five times a game but would be used more sparingly.

Exemplary, not explosive

Will the Panthers do this? Almost certainly not.

Rivera has long loved Stewart and the toughness he represents. He frequently uses Stewart’s inside runs as an example of “Panthers football” at its finest and says Stewart “sets the tone” for what the Panthers want to be.

And there’s this: Stewart is smart, knows the offense and has 46 career rushing TDs. There’s a comfort level with him. Unlike Benjamin – who fought weight problems and not long ago walked off the practice field in frustration with a lingering knee injury – Stewart’s conduct has been quietly exemplary.

It’s just that Stewart is no longer a player opposing defenses really have to worry about. McCaffrey is.

The rookie should start.

The other younger players should get more chances. And Stewart, the veteran, should play sparingly.

It’s time.

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