David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer 355d

Jonathan Stewart didn't set Panthers' all-time mark by counting carries

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jonathan Stewart naturally would benefit from getting 20-25 carries per game to get into the rhythm that top running backs talk about. He would benefit from being fed the ball three, four or five times in a row to wear down defenses with his smashmouth approach.

That’s when the Carolina Panthers veteran is at his best.

But Stewart, 30, doesn’t keep track of carries.

“I like winning,’’ he said after Carolina's 33-30 victory at New England on Sunday. “At the end of the day, I trust coaching. That’s kind of been my motto all my life. I trust coaching and the position God puts you in to make things work.’’

That outlook has been a constant in Stewart’s career, and the results speak for themselves.

In the fourth quarter against the Patriots, he became Carolina’s all-time leading rusher, surpassing the 6,846 yards DeAngelo Williams had from 2006-14.

It happened with little fanfare as quarterback Cam Newton stole the show with four touchdowns, three passing and one rushing.

Stewart had a modest 68 yards rushing on 14 carries to run his career total to 6,868 yards. He played only 28 snaps, 20 fewer than rookie running back Christian McCaffrey because of his ability to play multiple positions.

This season, Stewart is averaging only 14.75 carries and 57.5 yards per game. That’s down from the 18.6 carries and 76 yards per game he had in 2015 when he helped the Panthers reach the Super Bowl.

That isn’t likely to change with McCaffrey averaging almost eight carries and 7.25 passes thrown his way per game.

But Stewart doesn’t complain about his lack of carries now any more than he did during his first seven seasons when he shared the backfield with Williams. Stewart wasn’t the starter most of that time, yet he took advantage of the opportunities he had.

In 2009, Stewart and Williams -- then known as “Double Trouble’’ -- became the first pair of backs on the same team to rush for 1,100 yards in a season.

Stewart got his on 13.8 carries a game, compared to 17 for Williams.

Stewart’s role has been reduced even more this year with the addition of McCaffrey as the Panthers attempt to become more dynamic offensively.

“He’s so selfless,’’ McCaffrey said. “He’s willing to do whatever it takes. The best teams have guys like that, where it’s not about their individual success.

“For me to come in as a rookie, for him to help me along the way like he has, it speaks highly of him as a player and a person, too.’’

Stewart simply feels blessed at his age to contribute, particularly after it appeared his career was all but done in 2012 and 2013, when ankle injuries limited him to 15 games over a two-year span.

“I just thank God for being able to have gone through all the things I’ve gone through as far as injuries and the highs and lows of this team,’’ Stewart said. “We’re not done yet.’’

Stewart is not done yet. During the offseason, the Panthers signed him to an extension through 2018. He’s still counted on to get that tough third-down or goal-line carry.

What he does between the tackles wears down the defense and forces opponents to stay focused on stopping the run instead of focusing only on Newton.

After a rare Stewart fumble on Sunday when a New England defender punched the ball out with an almost perfect blow, the Panthers came right back to their lead back on the first two plays of their next possession.

Stewart went 9 yards off left guard and then 4 yards off right guard to start a scoring drive.

“You wanted to put the ball right back into his hands, so he knew we trusted him and we believe in who he is,’’ coach Ron Rivera said.

That’s because Stewart is a workhorse no matter how many carries he gets. But when asked to carry the load, he’s as effective as any back in the league. In a 2016 late-season prime-time win at Washington, he had 25 carries for 132 yards behind an offensive line that was decimated by injuries.

“He’s a truck, for sure,’’ McCaffrey said. “It’s pretty insane watching guys try to tackle him and bounce off.’’

But Stewart's mindset was no different after the Washington game than on Sunday, when he had 11 fewer carries.

“Jonathan is the consummate team player,’’ Rivera said.

Stewart also is a quiet leader. He doesn’t say a lot, believing that actions speak louder than words. That’s why he stood on the sideline during the national anthem -- next to outside linebacker Thomas Davis -- with his hands together and his head bowed in prayer.

“Everyone has their views on a lot of things,’’ Stewart said. “They have their rights to their views. At the end of the day … you can only have true unity if God is a part of it. That’s my belief.

“If we stay focused on that, we’ll actually experience the love that we have for each other, for this country and for this world, and just how blessed we really are.’’

This unselfish approach is why Stewart is Carolina’s all-time leading rusher, and why he didn’t make a big deal about it when it happened.

“It’s all about winning to him,’’ backup running back Fozzy Whittaker said. “It doesn’t matter what happens. If we win the Super Bowl and Stew had five carries, he would be just as happy as if he had 20 carries.’’

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