Stewart could play against Rams, but should he?

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart likes talking to the media about as much as he likes being a spectator. He's spent the first five games nursing a right ankle injury that landed him on the physically unable to perform list.

He ended Monday's unexpected interview with a "see y'all next year'' line that you just knew he couldn't wait to deliver.

But Stewart will talk again. And he will play again this year. He guaranteed that.

Maybe it will be this week against the St. Louis Rams. Maybe it will be the next week at Tampa Bay. Or the next at home against Atlanta. But somewhere over the next three weeks -- the time the NFL allows a player to come off PUP -- the Panthers will activate their second all-time leading rusher. When they do the team will be better for it.

If need be, Stewart insists he could be ready for the Rams.

"Yeah, I think I can work myself to do whatever is needed for me to do to help the team win, to play efficient football,'' Stewart said.

Coach Ron Rivera is cautiously optimistic Stewart can play this week. He'd like to have him back to help a 2-3 team become a consistent winner.

But is rushing back -- if this is rushing -- best for Stewart? He says there's still some pain in the right ankle that was scoped during the offseason. He also says the ankle is strong enough to where there's no danger of reinjuring it.

"I'm at a manageable place right now to where I can play that way,'' Stewart said.

But the Panthers need more than manageable. They need Stewart for the long haul, not in one game and out the next as rookie Kenjon Barner was a week after he returned from a three-week absence recovering from an ankle injury.

Stewart even admitted he'd like to have more than a week of practice before going live, reminding he hasn't taken a game snap since November.

"It's been a long time,'' Stewart said. "I'd rather get into the rhythm. Again, it's a professional sport and it's a business of being productive. If your name is called, you've got to produce.''

When Stewart returns he'll make an offense ranked eighth in the NFL in rushing (135.8 ypg.) better. He'll give DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert breaks that they may not admit they need, but over the course of a season will.

"I've seen those guys,'' Stewart said. "I know there's times . . . they're tired, banged up. I know that me being on the sidelines would fill that role to help, to alleviate that pain they're going through, whether it's tired or banged up.''

But the Panthers don't need Stewart banged up. They need him strong so he'll have the kind of games that helped him and Williams earn the nickname "Double Trouble.'' They need him producing at a level where he can't escape questions from the media until next year.

He's waited this long to come back, and the Panthers were more than efficient without him during Sunday's 35-10 victory over Minnesota. Waiting another week or so won't hurt.