Running back Jonathan Stewart had offseason surgery on both ankles, has been relegated to working with trainers on the side for most of training camp and hasn't participated in preseason action. On Tuesday, NFL Network analyst Ian Rapoport broke the news that Stewart will be placed on the PUP list and will miss the first six weeks of the season.
With a stable of running backs that features Stewart, DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert, losing one shouldn’t be that big of an issue. But it’s the last news the Panthers wanted to hear.
Newton led the Panthers with 741 rushing yards last season, with Williams close behind with 737. Stewart, injured for a portion of last season too, tallied 336 yards, and Tolbert 183.
Williams led the team in 2011 with 836 yards and will have to again in 2013 if the Panthers want to see the kind of success they’ve worked for in the offseason. But the last time Williams was the bell cow in Carolina’s backfield was 2008, when he rushed for 1,515 yards on 273 carries. That was also the only time in his career he rushed the ball more than 250 times.
The Panthers are moving away from the read-option and Newton as a run-first quarterback. Tolbert has never been a great option as a featured back. He fares much better as a change-of-pace kind of threat.
That means Williams, at 30 years old, is once again going to have to carry the load for the Panthers.
Stay Healthy and Out of Trouble
It is imperative that Williams stays healthy early on in the season. If he misses time to an injury before Week 7, it’ll be Tolbert running the show with help from either Kenjon Barner, Armond Smith or Tauren Poole. That is not a recipe for success.
Williams has averaged a healthy 4.8 yards per carry since the beginning of the 2009 season. But once again, he wasn't the featured runner for most of that time. He’s going to have to be for at least the first five games of the season (the Panthers have a Week 4 bye). That’s a huge workload to place on an aging frame. But if the best-case scenario happens and Stewart is ready by Week 7, it’s a huge workload for only the first five games.
The Panthers are going to have to be smart about getting Williams his 15 to 20 carries a game, and Williams is going to have to stay on the right side of head coach Ron Rivera.
Scott Fowler, of the Charlotte Observer, wondered if Williams landed in Rivera’s doghouse last season after sitting on the bench for the better part of Carolina’s Oct. 21 game. Williams carried the ball just twice after carrying it only six times the week before.
Take the Read-Option Restrictions off Newton
Yes, it’s likely the right move for Newton’s career longevity and development to keep him in the pocket as much as possible. But it’s not the best thing for the Panthers, especially now that Stewart is gone for five games.
If Newton can’t improve his completion percentage (he landed just 57.7 percent of his passes last season) and he can’t run the football at will using the read-option, then defenses are going to sit on the run and crush Williams every time he crosses the line of scrimmage, if he makes it that far.
Even if it’s just for five games, can’t the offense add a few read-option calls into the new installation and open it up a bit for Newton?
This offense is going to need it.
Help the Offense with Special Teams
Last season, according to Football Outsiders, the Panthers ranked No. 28 in average drive start, as the team started at approximately its own 25-yard line on average. This won’t fly in 2013.
The defense will be much improved this season, so that will help give the offense some shorter fields to work with. Ted Ginn Jr. has been a breath of fresh air in the punt-return game during preseason action.
Ginn returned a punt 74 yards for a touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens on Aug. 22. With Joe Adams gone due to injury, punt-return duties are Ginn’s. He must keep up the good work, and the kick returns must improve a notch from the 22.3 yards per return three Carolina return specialists combined to average through the first three preseason games.
Better field position for the first five games while Stewart is gone could really benefit the Panthers.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.