Return of Stewart won't break tight bond

CHARLOTTE N.C. -- DeAngelo Williams was trying to do a group interview on Thursday, but Mike Tolbert wasn't making it easy by pushing reporters closer and closer.

"Would you stop that?" Williams finally said. "And when are you going to get a haircut?"

"I'm not," Tolbert said with a laugh. "No shave ... (till) November."

Said Williams, "Right now, you can shave."

There's a genuine playfulness and friendship between the Carolina Panthers running backs. That doesn't change because they're competing for snaps, and it won't change when Jonathan Stewart is added to the mix on Sunday against Atlanta.

Stewart is expected to be activated off the physically unable to perform list after missing the first seven games rehabbing from offseason surgery on his right ankle. The team's second all-time leading rusher will be welcomed back with open arms, not jealous stares because of playing time he will steal.

"The group is really close," coach Ron Rivera said. "Everybody wants to make an issue about touches. I don't think it's going to be an issue. It wasn't one before I got here and I don't expect it to be one now.

"The key has to be, when you get an opportunity to carry the ball, you've got to make it a quality touch."

No, the key is winning.

Williams, barring a setback from the bruised quadricep that kept him out of practice on Wednesday and Thursday, will get the start. He should because he has carried the bulk of the load with Stewart on the mend, totaling 477 yards to rank 10th in the NFL in rushing.

But Williams isn't concerned about how many carries he gets once Stewart is fully integrated into the system anymore than Tolbert is.

"As long as we just keep winning," Williams said. "That’s what it all boils down to is winning. I don’t see a change at all. We’re clicking on all cylinders and having Jonathan back adds to those cylinders. I don’t see it as a negative, but I guess some people can see it that way.”

It's always been that between Williams and Stewart. They were dubbed "Double Trouble" soon after combining for 301 yards rushing in a December 2008 "Monday Night Football" game against Tampa Bay.

That was also the last season the Panthers (4-3) were above .500 before now. The addition of Stewart's fresh legs can help keep them there.

"If you polled all the running backs in the league, everyone of them would say they want to win the game," Williams said. "I'm not sure everyone of them would say they want all the carries."

In a sport where egos are huge, particularly at high-profile positions, this may be a rarity. But with these two -- and now three with Tolbert in the mix -- it's an accepted way of life.

Exactly how Stewart will figure into the game plan is unknown. Rivera would like to use the back's physicality running inside with Tolbert, then take advantage of Williams' speed on the corner.

The key will be not forcing Stewart into a rotation that already has the Panthers ranked eighth in the league in rushing.

“If it takes me rushing for 1,000 yards to win football games and make it to the playoffs, then, yeah, let’s do it. I’m all for it,” Williams said. “But if they don’t translate into winning football games and winning the championship then I can pass on that.”

Having three backs the quality of Williams, Stewart and Tolbert is a bonus in a league where one seldom makes it through the season healthy. Just ask the Falcons, who have struggled without Steven Jackson much of this year.

“Early on this season through seven games, [Williams has] taken the bulk of the shots,'' Rivera said. "This will be a great opportunity to integrate somebody else, take a little bit of the pressure off of him and we’ll see how things go down the stretch.

"Obviously, we’re hoping that it is a playoff run.”

That is the ultimate bond that allows all three backs to put egos aside, to forge a relationship off the field that makes them tighter than anything that might threaten to break them up on it.