Jonathan Stewart has long been the Carolina Panthers’ piano man. A brutish running back on the field, he has no problem showing his tender side in front of the piano.
The latest song Stewart has learned? “All of Me” – a ballad by John Legend.
In reality, Legend wrote that song for the woman who would soon become his wife. But in a larger sense, “All of Me” is what the Panthers hope to be getting from Stewart this season – all of a back who for the first time will no longer have running mate DeAngelo Williams alongside him.
“This is my eighth year,” Stewart said Sunday at Carolina’s training camp at Wofford College. “And the last seven years, especially here at Wofford, that’s kind of been the groundbreaking piece for me and (Williams) – our bond and everything. So it’s definitely different, not hearing his voice around, him joking and laughing and stuff like that.”
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Branded as “Double Trouble” since 2009, when they both rushed for more than 1,100 yards, Stewart and Williams were a package deal for years longer than most NFL two-back tandems. The Panthers finally broke up the duo this past offseason, releasing Williams after he had career lows in every major category during an injury-plagued season.
Stewart has spent a large portion of the past three seasons hurt, too, which is the biggest concern about a player who has almost always been productive when healthy. He missed 20 of a possible 48 regular-season games (41.7 percent) from 2012-14 because of various injuries.
Of Stewart’s 12 career 100-yard rushing games, three came in the final seven games of last season (including the playoffs).
If you will grant me one more analogy to Legend’s song, injuries are Stewart’s “perfect imperfections” – you almost have to put up with them because of the physical running style he uses on all of those missed tackles he causes.
But at the end of the 2014 season, the 235-pound Stewart became one of the Panthers’ best players again, rushing for an average of 97 yards per game during a torrid seven-game stretch that included Carolina’s two postseason games. His 155-yard monster game against New Orleans helped to kick-start Carolina’s run, and his 123-yard playoff game against Arizona helped ensure that the Panthers won their first playoff game since the 2005 season.
Stewart has one career rushing season of 1,000 or more yards -- it came back in 2009, during his second year in the NFL.
Now 28 and entering training camp as the team’s clear No. 1 running back for the first time, Stewart said he believes he will play just as well in 2015 as he did in December and January.
“That’s what I expect,” Stewart said. “That’s what I expect every time I have the chance to get those types of numbers.”
Naturally quiet around everyone but his closest friends, Stewart usually said one word in public for every 25 that Williams uttered. He said Sunday that won’t change and that “be yourself” was one of his credos.
Still, there is evidence that Stewart is feeling loose. As a joke, he brought Mike Tolbert to stand beside him during the first part of a group interview with the media, saying he was paying Tolbert “78 cents a day” to be his bodyguard. Normally a player who hesitates to opine about anybody else, J-Stew had a good quote about Cam Newton’s leadership style Sunday.
“I think he’s more comfortable in the whole leadership role,” Stewart said of Newton. “For the last couple of years, he’s been trying to figure out his blend. Because he’s a goofy cat, he keeps everything loose. But the blend of being loose and being vocal at the same time – it can be hard. And I think he’s polished that.”
Opposing coaches know how hard Stewart can be to play. Said Seattle coach Pete Carroll before last season’s playoff game of Stewart: “He’s very difficult to tackle. He’s very explosive in contact. He’s got good speed to get away from you and make big plays.”
Stewart remains close with Williams, who is now the No. 2 running back in Pittsburgh. He said he talked with Williams Friday. “He’s doing well in Pittsburgh, as expected,” Stewart said.
But Stewart knows it’s mostly up to him this season. The only 1,000-yard rushing season in his career came in 2009.
If he’s ever going to get another one, this should be the year.
STEWART BY THE NUMBERS
30 – Career rushing TDs for Stewart. Twenty of those came in the first two of his seven NFL seasons.
97 – Stewart’s rushing average in the final seven games of last season, which included three 100-yard games.
4,825 – Stewart’s career rushing yardage for Carolina, second all-time to DeAngelo Williams. Williams leads Stewart by 2,021 yards.