The face of the Carolina Panthers long-term running game changed yesterday with news DeAngelo Williams restructured his contract. This erased the idea he would be cut following the season -- which was a line of thinking born out of logic, not a lack of faith. Williams can still play, that's clear, and the team are better off for having him. However, now the lens is turned on a position as a whole to determine how the backs will line up.
Williams was sensational during the final five weeks of the season. He carried the ball 82 times for 445 yards, and averaged 5.42 yards-per-carry -- vintage DeAngelo. One could write off this performance by pointing out that almost half of these yards came against an abysmal New Orleans' defense, but that would be splitting hairs. It's the kind of runner he is, ineffective at times -- punctuated with the home run hit. Understand the kind of back he is, and this becomes easier to swallow.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Stewart got to watch, stuck on the sideline due to injury. At least one half of 'Double Trouble' was able to make an impact. He'd been asked to be the Panthers' primary rusher as the season began, and struggled in the same ways the entire offense did. Just as it would be unfair to write off Williams because of his final game, so too it's inappropriate to chide Stewart for his struggles. The read option offense was the worst possible match for his North-South run style, and the emphasis on delayed hand-offs put him at an immediate disadvantage.
In short: Williams got hot at the right time, and inherited the right offense -- while Stewart came in cold, and was stuck with the Mad Hatter approach.
Steve Smith has been on the radio for the last two months in Charlotte, and hasn't shied away from being outspoken. He spoke about the back from a perceived coaching perspective. Smith indicated that Stewart should be the starter (carefully avoiding saying so in as many words). Asking a series of questions to the two hosts about the need for a back to be versatile, catch out of the backfield, and move the chains -- he remained silent as his co-hosts named Stewart as the player who best typified what Smith believed a RB needed.
It's here where evaluation can be tricky, but all we have to lean on is common games. It's an imprecise metric that doesn't account for defensive tendencies, and strengths -- but it at least gives us an idea of how each back did when facing the same set of circumstances, as well as operating in the same offense.
Double Trouble: 2012 Common Games
When given almost equal opportunities in Rob Chudzinksi's madness, Stewart was the better running back in both phases. It's improbable that Stewart would have had a 200-yard game late in the season, but when the offense moved to more downhill running there's no question he would have had better games.
The answer for 2013 is clear: If healthy (yes, that's a big caveat), Jonathan Stewart should be the featured back. He's better suited to pick up the hard yards, and while he doesn't have the big play potential that Williams has, the passing game will fill the home run role.
It remains to be seen how the team will handle guys like Tauren Poole and Armond Smith who sit at the bottom of the depth chart, but it's reasonable to assume a 50/35/10/5 split of carries between Stewart/Williams/Tolbert/Barner is the way to move forward at the position. It gives the Panthers two bruisers, two speed backs -- and when paired with Cam Newton offers the best grouping.