Panthers needed Stewart to avoid slow start

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jonathan Stewart turned as he made his way down the winding sidewalk that leads to the Carolina Panthers' practice fields on Tuesday, raised his hand and said, "See you guys later."

But how much later?

Carolina's second all-time leading rusher was placed on the physically unable to perform list after meeting earlier in the morning with team specialists regarding his injured right ankle. With a bye in Week 4, that means Stewart won't be eligible to return until an Oct. 20 game versus the St. Louis Rams.

If then.

Once the six weeks pass, the Panthers still have 21 days to determine if the ankle is good to go or if Stewart will be placed on injured reserve. So the season could be half over before he gets on the field.

In other words, Carolina's chances of ending its string of slow starts suffered a major setback. Not that the team was overly optimistic of having Stewart to start the season, and it's not like Stewart kept the team from slow starts the past four years.

With him the Panthers haven't gotten to October with a winning record since his rookie year of 2008 when the team opened 8-2. The past four seasons Carolina has opened 2-8, 2-8, 1-12 and 4-7.

But new offensive coordinator Mike Shula was committed to having a more traditional running game this season, leaning less on quarterback Cam Newton to lead the team in rushing. A healthy Stewart with DeAngelo Williams on paper is better than Williams and Kenjon Barner, a rookie selected in the sixth round out of Oregon.

Barner has rushed for 42 yards on 15 carries in three preseason games. That's a 2.8-yard average that just won't cut it.

Williams hasn't done much better, though, rushing 17 times for 49 yards, or 2.9 yards per carry.

Perhaps Monday's addition of veteran left guard Travelle Wharton will help. The line has struggled with injuries throughout the preseason and Wharton could add some stability.

Still, Stewart has to be missed.

But if you want to look at it through a glass half-full perspective, if the Panthers can avoid their traditional slow start, a fresh Stewart for the second half of the season could be a bonus.