Panthers backs among best with Stewart

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- In the lobby of the student activity center at Wofford College, Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart can be heard playing a soft, relaxing melody on the piano.

He's arguably one of the best piano players in the NFL.

And when healthy, Stewart also gives the Panthers arguably the best 1-2-3 punch in the league at running back.

On Monday, for the first time in training camp and the first time period since a sprained knee sidelined him late last season, Stewart was healthy enough to practice in full pads.

He looked and felt more comfortable and fluid than at any time since the end of the 2011 season.

"Yeah, definitely," Stewart said. "My running motion coming out the gate, making cuts, was as fluid as I've been in a while, which is good. I don't have to second-guess anything."

He certainly didn't second-guess when asked if the Panthers had the deepest backfield in the NFL with him, DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert healthy. He also didn't when asked if they had the best backfield in the league.

"I believe so," Stewart said.

He paused, then added, "That's a bad question."

Actually, it's a good question. The Panthers want to be a physical, running team not only with their backs but with quarterback Cam Newton, who undoubtedly gives them the best 1-2-3-4 punch when Stewart is healthy.

Newton has the most rushing yards (2,032) and rushing touchdowns (28) of any quarterback in the league since 2011.

But it all comes back to Stewart being healthy. He hasn't been since 2011, before his ankles became an issue and limited him to only 15 games the past two seasons.

He then entered training camp with a hamstring injury that forced him to miss every practice until Sunday's light workout.

But the Panthers didn't put him on the physically unable to perform list as they did last season because his ankles felt fine and they understand his value.

Carolina ranked third in the NFL in rushing with 2,408 yards (150.5 yards per game) when Stewart played in all 16 games three years ago. It also ranked third in 2009 with 2,498 yards when Stewart (1,133 yards) and Williams (1,117) became the first tandem in NFL history to each rush for at least 1,100 yards.

They were so impressive that they became known as "Double Trouble." It led to big contracts for both.

If they can revert to that form, they can rank with Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles and Buffalo's Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller as the best backfields in the league.

The Panthers ranked 11th in the league in rushing last season with 2,026 yards (126.6 ypg) with Stewart playing in only six games and contributing only 180 yards.

But there's no doubt Carolina is better with him. As much as has been made about the backs strapping the team's salary cap -- Stewart counting $4.5 million this season and Williams $6 million -- both have restructured their deals over the past year to lessen the financial stress and both are unselfish when it comes to carries.

Each also brings something different to the scheme that makes Carolina better -- Stewart more power and Williams more elusiveness as an outside threat.

Throw Pro Bowler Tolbert into the mix and it really is a 1-2-3 punch.

Monday was the first step for Stewart taking a punch.

"Just like a fight, you're not going to win your first fight unless you've been in one -- unless you're lucky and the (other) guy can't fight," Stewart said. "Definitely, today was a good first step for me."

That's good news for Williams, who at 31 has shouldered more than normal in practice while waiting for Stewart's return. He's done it while dealing with the death of his mother to breast cancer in May.

"Mentally, that guy, he's a soldier," Stewart said of Williams, who hasn't talked to the media since camp opened. "He's gone through a lot this offseason. Unwavered I would say he is."

So, too, has Stewart been in his battle to get back on the field.

It's helped his piano playing as well.