Ron Rivera made the decision in 2012 that Jonathan Stewart would be his primary running back. It was a shift in philosophy the team hadn't attempted since Stewart was a first round pick in 2008. It's hard to project what Rivera's plans are now at RB with the 26-year-old back coming off a season-ending injury, and it's further muddied by another year with lingering injuries entering camp.
Stewart's inability to practice has gone from an overwrought critique, to a bad joke. Whether it's his ankle, knee, or foot, Stewart has been ready for the regular season, but absent when it's time for Spartanburg. While it's easy to justify away this pattern, it's also frustrating for an organization looking to re-work their running game in 2013, leaning more on the two highly-paid backs.
Rivera is utilizing coach-speak right now, saying Stewart is "working hard" but not broaching the topic whether he'll be ready for camp, instead leaning on "we'll see" .
The Panthers have a tough decision to make, assuming Stewart follows his history and is ready week one. Both backs shared the load in 2013, as the two split carries 55/45 in common games last year, but there's a very definite line between the 1st and 2nd back. It's also not as simple as handing the primary job back to DeAngelo because of his strong finish to the season. It's often overlooked that while Stewart's 3.6 YPA was abysmal in 2012, Williams was worse in the same games -- posting 3.0 YPA.
Is Jonathan Stewart healthy enough to be relied on in 2013?
Is gambling on DeAngelo Williams the right move given his three 6.0+ YPA games, or is he closer to the player who failed to post 2.0 in six occasions?
What we saw in 2012 was mutually assured mediocrity. Rob Chudzinski did nothing to help his running backs, and neither Stewart nor Williams did anything to help themselves. Regardless of who comes out of Spartanburg as the Panthers top back, the only constant is that Cam Newton can't lead the team in rushing again.
The pattern needs to be broken too, and Stewart needs to get himself healthy enough to practice.