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Are Panthers Better Off Benching Stewart?

Anthony Rizzuti

Should the Panthers sit Jonathan Stewart Sunday in their divisional round matchup with San Francisco?

(Photo credit: USA TODAY Sports)

The abdominal area of LenDale White’s jersey wasn’t the only thing on him that was ready to rip. There was also his mouth.

Back in 2008, White and fellow Tennessee Titans halfback Chris Johnson found themselves in an unlikely and unusual battle. But it wasn’t even with a defensive opponent. In fact, it wasn’t even with a team they faced on their 2009 regular season slate.

This battle was fought against two Carolina Panthers running backs—DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. And they weren’t just fighting for supremacy as the NFL’s top backfield duo. They were battling for a distinct (and perhaps corny) nickname—“Smash and Dash.”

White, who claimed to have created the nickname, was not particularly fond of the moniker being used to reference Williams and Stewart. So naturally, White turned to his most lethal weapon (yes, his pie hole) and suggested a new nickname for the Carolina running mates.

“You know, if they want a nickname, I could nickname them,” White said. “Identity and Theft. I think they’ll run away with that real well.”

Although the wise crack was actually quite clever, the bid for the “Smash and Dash” namesake was shorter than White’s NFL career. Williams and Stewart dumped the feud and opted for “Double Trouble” as the team of White and Johnson were dismantled just a year later.

And while the Panthers still have their two-headed backfield here in 2014, they may be facing a similar fate as the fellas in Tennessee. For now, however, they must stop splitting carries starting this Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers.

Sure, the two have gone through a lot together in Charlotte. They shared the backfield during the 2008 playoff run, the 2009 decline, the 2010 Jimmy Clausen nightmare and, most recently, the three-year resurgence of the franchise. But sorry, it’s time for Ron Rivera and Mike Shula to keep Stewart on the sidelines and let Williams go to work.

On top of suffering yet another injury-plagued season, Stewart just hasn’t been all that effective on the field when in the lineup. In his six games during the 2013 season, Stewart rushed for just 180 yards on 48 attempts. His longest carry was a modest 16 yards and did not bring any of his touches into the end zone. The 3.8 yards per carry average was the second lowest of his career, behind only his campaign the year prior where Stewart suffered a nagging ankle injury. He played just nine games in that 2012 season.

More importantly, however, is the play of Williams when Stewart is not on the field. Of the 15 games played by Williams in 2013, ten of them were in the absence of Stewart. In those ten games, Williams saw 15.1 touches out of the backfield. He hit 65.8 rushing yards per contest on a 4.3 yards per carry average.

With Stewart in, Williams grabbed just 10.0 carries per game. In those instances, he ran for only 37.0 yards per game with a 3.7 yards per carry average. Additionally, Williams had his top three receiving performances with Stewart on the sidelines. He chalked up 53 receiving yards against Tampa Bay in Week 8, 87 against the New York Jets in Week 15 and 75 against Atlanta in Week 17.

Despite still performing at a high level, Williams isn’t the same back he was in 2008. No longer are the days of a 1,515-yard, 18-touchdown season. At the age of 30, Williams and his weekly output hinges on gaining a rhythm. Williams, especially in 2013, usually starts out relatively slow and progressively dashes opposing defenses as the game goes on. If he has to share touches with Stewart, Mike Tolbert and Cam Newton—that won’t happen.

As Steve Smith struggles to get his knee back to full health, the Panthers passing game may not factor in as much as they want this Sunday. If so, they’ll need Williams to have his best outing yet against a stout San Francisco defense.

Injuries are an unfortunate truth for players and Stewart is no exception. After spending the first seven weeks of the season recovering from offseason ankle surgery, he was taken out not too far after when he banged up his knee against New Orleans in Week 14.

Quite frankly, the past two years for Stewart have been anything but productive. With his failure to hit a groove and Williams’ superior performance without him, Stewart and the Panthers should just cut their cut losses and open up a seat on the bench for the duration of the postseason.

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