Panthers RB Jonathan Stewart: Already Elite?

CHARLOTTE NC - DECEMBER 12: Jonathan Stewart #28 of the Carolina Panthers runs with the ball against the Atlanta Falcons during their game at Bank of America Stadium on December 12 2010 in Charlotte North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

One of the disadvantages to being in a small market is the struggle for legitimately good players to get the positive attention they deserve for their on-field performance. It’s something that we’ve grown weary of here in Carolina, whether it be the disrespect shown for Jon Beason by his peers when they ranked him #95 on the NFL Network's Top 100 of 2011 list, or when every national pundit proclaimed that the Panthers’ defense was doomed after the departure of Julius Peppers, as if he were the only player who took the field during his 8 year tenure in Carolina (even though he was outplayed in 2010 by his replacement Charles Johnson, but that’s another story for another day).

It seems that the next Panther to face the battle of trying to earn proper recognition from the national media is running back Jonathan Stewart. As Panthers fans, we have become used to seeing Stewart take advantage of the Panthers’ strong running game by pairing with DeAngelo Williams to form one of the best (or, if you ask me, the best) running back duos in the league, but apparently we’ve been the only ones who have noticed the quality of play that Stewart brings week in and week out since he was drafted back in 2008. columnist Pat Kirwan is apparently one of those people who haven’t noticed Stewart’s body of work, and if you haven’t read it already, I invite you to click this link and read one of his latest articles, where he ranks the best running backs in the NFL by grouping them in 9 groups of 5 players each.

Go ahead...I'll wait.

Welcome back. Now, after reading Kirwan's article, I can't help but notice two things: 1) he is terribly off on most of his rankings, and 2) Jonathan Stewart is ranked in Group F. Yes, that’s right. Group F. Keep in mind the groups only range from A-I, meaning he has Stewart ranked near the bottom of the list.* According to Kirwan, Stewart isn’t even one of the top-25 of running backs in the NFL. What kind of nonsense is that?

* - Please note: In each group, he lists the players in alphabetical order. He’s not saying that Stewart is the worst RB in Group F (though I’m sure he probably does feel that way), Stewart just happens to come last alphabetically. It doesn’t excuse the fact that he put him in Group F, but it does need to be said in his defense that he’s not saying Stewart is the worst player in that group.

To make matters worse, he ranks guys like BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Marshawn Lynch higher than he does Stewart. Are you kidding me? What is wrong with the national media? I understand that the Panthers are a small-market team and they just came off a 2-14 season (mostly due to poor QB play, but we won’t get into that here), but is it really necessary to ignore statistics and completely undervalue our players because the team as a whole struggled to put wins together last season? Come on should be better than that. (It’s not like you’re Michael Silver or anything...)

Since Kirwan decided to ignore the stats and failed to put forth some proper research into his article, I’ve decided to take the time to determine just how good Jonathan Stewart really is, and where he stacks up against the rest of the league. Based on my findings, you will see that not only is he extremely underrated by Kirwan, but he is actually one of the better running backs in the league and we’re quite fortunate to have him in electric blue.

We’ll examine what Stewart brings to the table after the jump...

First, let’s do a blind comparison. My esteemed colleague James Dator likes to do this from time to time in comment threads to prove a point, so I am going to borrow his idea and give you two running backs’ statisitcs for the last three years (2008-2010 seasons), and let’s see if anyone can figure out who they are.

RB-A: 583 ATT / 2739 YDS / 4.7 YPC / 22 TD / 7 FUM

RB-B: 585 ATT / 2439 YDS / 4.2 YPC / 20 TD / 5 FUM

I’ll let you think for a minute...

Okay. RB-A is Jonathan Stewart. RB-B is Rashard Mendenhall.

I’m sure you’re thinking to yourself: "They’re practically identical players, so where are you going with this?" Well, I’m glad you asked, because I’m about to tell you. Go back to Kirwan’s article, and look at where Mendenhall is ranked. (If you’re too lazy, he’s in Group D.) Can someone please explain to me how Mendenhall is that much better than Stewart where he deserves to be ranked in the top-20, and Stewart is in the 25-30 group? The two backs have been in the league the same amount of time, yet Stewart has better numbers (with fewer carries) than Mendenhall. Granted, Mendenhall missed significant time his rookie year due to a leg injury, but he has been the feature back for the last 2 seasons while Stewart has shared his workload with D-Will for the past 3 seasons, so to me it evens out and the comparisons between the two are valid.

The only explanations I can come up with are either Kirwan has a huge vendetta against the Panthers, is a Steelers fan, or has no clue what he’s talking about. I don’t know which one it is (it could even be all three), but one of those three theories has to be the motive as to why he would rank those two players the way he did. Like we’ve all grown accustomed to over the past 12 months, I understand that the national media doesn’t pay attention to us except when they can spew negative vitriol our way, but for someone who is supposed to be an NFL analyst, the egregious under-ranking of Stewart (and over-ranking of Mendenhall) is downright laughable.

However, I can’t be too upset at everyone who claims to be an NFL expert, because at least Steve Wyche understands the simple concept of "one man doesn’t make an entire team", and he (thankfully) recognizes that just because the Panthers went 2-14 last year doesn’t mean everyone on the team is horrible. In a recent article for, Wyche predicts that Stewart is due for a big year in 2011, especially if the Panthers fail to re-sign DeAngelo Williams.

Wyche (emphasis mine):

I'm pegging Carolina's Jonathan Stewart to emerge as one of the top running backs in the NFL next season, barring injury. First off, Stewart is a good enough back that he surpassed 1,000 yards while splitting carries with DeAngelo Williams in 2009. He's also good enough for Carolina to let Williams test free agency.

If Williams is not re-signed, Stewart could get his crack as the team's main ball carrier for the first time in his three-year career. That opportunity paired with playing alongside an upstart quarterback -- in this case, rookie Cam Newton -- could bode well for Stewart.

While it’s great that Wyche is predicting Stewart to emerge as a top running back in 2011, I can’t help but call him out on his ignorance as well, because he has also failed to do some simple research that would have helped him realize that Stewart is already a top-tier running back in the NFL. Don’t believe me? Well, let’s look at some more statistics.

Here’s another mystery back to compare to Stewart. (Again, these stats cover the last three years.)

Stewart: 583 ATT / 2739 YDS / 4.7 YPC / 22 TD / 7 FUM

RB-C: 925 ATT / 4598 YDS / 5.0 YPC / 34 TD / 6 FUM

Do you know who RB-C is?

Take another moment to see if you can figure it out.

Alright, it’s Chris Johnson. (Yes, that Chris Johnson.) I bet you didn’t think they were that close in YPC did you? (Fun fact: they both had a YPC of 4.3 last season.) Well, let’s look at this even closer, just for the fun of it. If you take Johnson’s amount of carries and apply Stewart’s YPC average of 4.7, you get the following stat line:

925 ATT / 4348 YDS / 4.7 YPC / ?? TD* / ?? FUM*

Average this out for the three years Stewart has been in the league, and this would be an average season:

308 ATT / 1449 YDS / 4.7 YPC / ?? TD* / ?? FUM*

Given this information, how can you not see that if given the same amount of carries as the top-tier backs in the league, Stewart would be among the best? If he had this stat line in 2010, he would have been 3rd in the league, and would have only been 18 yards shy of 2nd place. That's not too shabby if you ask me, and I have yet to figure out why the "experts" fail to give him the credit that is due, regardless of how the Panthers performed last season.

While we're talking about 2010, the general feeling is that Jonathan Stewart had a down year last season (mainly because everyone had a down year in 2010). Even though he had a down year, how does he compare to the best of the best? If you take the top-5 running backs in yards gained and average out their workloads, you get 301 carries. If you give Jonathan Stewart 301 carries based on his 2010 YPC, he would have had the stat line below:

301 ATT / 1294 YDS / 4.3 YPC / ?? TD / ?? FUM*

In case you were wondering, this stat line would have been good enough to rank Stewart 7th in the league in total rushing yards, and he had a down year. Imagine what he could have done if he was 2009 Jonathan Stewart?

* - There’s no way to accurately predict how many TD’s and FL’s he’d have due to outside factors (e.g. - weather, pass-heavy offense, etc.), but my educated guess is that he would be pretty consistent with his career numbers and would average between 7-11 TD’s per year and 2-5 fumbles per year if given the same workload as any of the top running backs in the league.

Now, back to the Chris Johnson comparison. Using YPC as a basis for the comparison, Stewart would have 250 yards fewer than Johnson does in his career if they had the same amount of carries. That’s approximately 83 fewer yards per year (and about 5 per game) than Johnson, who some consider to be one of the three best running backs in the league. Now, given this information, why is it so difficult for an "expert" to understand that Stewart is already a premier back? He is one of the better running backs in the league when you take into account his YPC ability and the amount of yards he has amassed without being the featured back for the first three years of his career, so why should he be punished when he doesn’t get as many carries as the other guys considered to be "elite backs" to boost his total yards to show up in the top-5 on a stat sheet produced by ESPN because he’s a part of the best running back tandem in the league?

With both Stewart and Williams on the roster, there’s no need for either one of them to get 300 carries a year, because they can be more effective as a duo if they get 150-175 carries each. That’s not Stewart’s fault, and he shouldn’t be treated as if it is his fault. He should be valued properly, and he should be compared to his peers fairly, because if he’s stacked up against the best of the best statistically, he holds his own as I have shown above.

The generally accepted notion that Stewart isn’t a top-tier back is silly at best and stupidly subjective at worst. Stewart shouldn’t be punished because the national media doesn’t love Jerry Richardson, and by extension, the Panthers. Just because the national "experts" want to let JR be the fall guy for the ongoing labor dispute doesn’t mean that Stewart is any less of a quality running back. It’s time to stop the nonsense, and it’s time to do the proper research and give players like Jonathan Stewart the credit they’ve earned on the field.

Just in case I didn't proclaim it clearly enough the first time, I'll say it again: just because Stewart is part of a running back tandem doesn’t mean he isn’t an elite back. Sure, he’s not the "starter", but what does that really mean anyway? That he isn’t on the field for the first snap of the game? What difference does that make? He’s still getting roughly 40% of the rushing attempts as the "backup", so it’s not that difficult to figure out he’s part of an equal partnership in the Panthers backfield. We’ve known for the past three years that we have a luxury at the running back position in that we have two equally gifted backs who could both start for the majority of teams in the league. Does that make them non-elite because they keep each other fresh by sharing the work load? I think not, and I believe that if DeAngelo Williams does not return to Carolina next season, the rest of the league is going to find out just how elite Jonathan Stewart is.

Steve Wyche was right, Jonathan Stewart is primed and ready to have a breakout year if DeAngelo Williams doesn’t return and Stewart can avoid the injury bug, but unlike the national media who will be utterly shocked to see such production coming from a Panther, here in Panther Nation we’ll be able to nod our heads collectively and say "Yep, we saw that coming from a mile away."

Is Jonathan Stewart already elite? I think so, and I believe that if you take a closer look at his body of work, you’d be hard pressed to say that he’s not one of the best running backs in the NFL, regardless of what the "experts" try to say. Group F my ass, Jonathan Stewart is in Group B, and by the time his career is over, could very well work his way into Group A. Hopefully the experts are man enough to admit they were wrong when they have to eat crow after Stewart steps out on the field at Bank of America Stadium and dominates like we all know he can.

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