Stewart giving Panthers major boost down the stretch
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Jonathan Stewart isn’t buying into the notion that running backs begin to slow down after they hit age 30.
The franchise’s all-time leading rusher said he’s more motivated than ever — and the numbers are proving it. The former first-round pick from Oregon has stepped up his game with the playoffs approaching averaging 4.8 yards per carry with five touchdowns over the past four games.
Along with Cam Newton, who has become a bigger part of the running game as the season has progressed, the Panthers have racked up more than 200 yards in each of their last three homes games. Carolina (9-4) hopes to continue that momentum on Sunday when its hosts the Green Bay Packers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who is expected to play after missing more than two months with a broken collarbone.
“I play hard regardless, but there’s obviously an extra purpose in my life,” Stewart said. “I have a family now. I have a daughter now and a wife and that obviously gives me extra motivation.”
Stewart was the Panthers first-round draft pick in 2007, but tends to fly under the radar in part because of quiet, humble demeanor.
Getting Stewart to talk about himself is nearly impossible, referring all praise to God.
Known as a mild-mannered guy who loves to laugh, teammates Stewart doesn’t necessarily fit the mold of a football player away from the field. He’s an accomplished pianist who’ll compete against six other NFL players for the NFL’s “Performer of the Year” in a made-for-TV show on CBS in January.
Stewart can play an impressive rendition of Lionel Richie’s “Easy.” The running back has been playing since he was 2.
Newton said when he first arrived in Carolina as a rookie he as “blown away” by Stewart’s musical talent.
“His play doesn’t dictate the person that he is” off the field, Newton said. “He’s a very violent runner, a person who is very hard to get down. Behind the helmet sometimes it’s hard to understand a lot of people.”
But Newton knows the Panthers will need Stewart’s aggressive running as the playoffs approach.
The Panthers (9-4) are tied with New Orleans for first place in the NFC South with three games remaining, although the Saints hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Last week he ran for 103 yards and three touchdowns in a win over the Minnesota Vikings, marking Carolina’s third straight win at home. With the next two games at home, the Panthers have a chance to take a big step toward reaching the postseason for the fourth time in five seasons.
It’s been a big turnaround for Stewart, who struggled to find running room earlier in the season after averaging just 2.9 yards per carry and scoring only one touchdown in the first nine games. His two uncharacteristic first quarter fumbles against the Atlanta Falcons on Nov. 5 were a low point in his season.
But he’s bounced back with a vengeance the past month.
“We didn’t doubt him,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “That’s why we kept putting Jonathan out there. We believe in who he is for us and he has been solid. He has worked hard. He had gotten better and better. He is getting stronger.”
Said Newton: “We know who we are. We know what are DNA is as a team. The better Stew is, the better this offense is.”
As for Stewart’s off-the-field talent, Newton was a little surprised to learn his backfield mate was selected to compete in a talent show.
When told the show would be in late January, Newton did a double take.
“January? January what?” Newton said. “No matter what, late is January is not good. I have hopes and prayers that we will busy (still playing) in January.”