Jonathan Stewart drills with RBs

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart participated only in position drills and watched most of the team portion of Saturday morning's workout.

But for someone who almost never practices because of chronic pain in his left Achilles tendon and heel, finally passing his physical and being taken off the physically unable to perform list was a significant accomplishment for Stewart and Carolina's struggling offense.

"It's a relief just being out there, being around what I'm supposed to be doing," Stewart said. "Making gradual steps toward being on the field is the plan. Today was good just to be around the guys and be able to walk through some plays and stuff like that. I think it was a good step."

Stewart's plight has been unique -- and the source of plenty of ribbing from his coaches and teammates. Although he's never missed a regular-season game and has racked up big numbers and records in his first two NFL seasons paired with fellow running back DeAngelo Williams, foot problems have kept him out of every offseason workout for three years.

Stewart missed April's minicamp, June's optional workouts and the first 19 practices of training camp as he recovered from offseason surgery. He was cleared minutes before Saturday's workout.

"He was carrying his helmet and I got a little excited," coach John Fox said.

Added center Ryan Kalil: "It was awesome. I tried to slow-clap but nobody jumped in with me."

Stewart has taken the teasing in stride, but his injury has caused him plenty of concern because he hasn't been pain-free since late in the 2007 season, when he hurt his right big toe in his final college season at Oregon.

He underwent surgery on the toe and missed every offseason workout after being the 13th pick in the 2008 draft. Despite setting a franchise rookie record with 836 yards rushing, he developed pain in his left foot that he says was an offshoot of overcompensating for his toe.

He played all 16 games last season and rushed for a team-best 1,133 yards, but was in constant pain and rarely practiced more than once a week. He underwent surgery to "clean up" the area between his Achilles tendon and heel in January.

"I'm still feeling pain, but I'm just making gradual steps," Stewart said. "Moving up rather than down."

Stewart isn't sure when he'll be cleared for contact, or if he'll play in a preseason game. It doesn't appear he'll be ready for next Saturday's game against the New York Jets.

"I would love to play in a preseason game, if that's something that's smart to do with my foot," Stewart said. "Just to get my feet wet before I play an actual regular-season game that counts. Go out there and get some contact, get my pad level down, just things that a football player needs to do and feel before he plays a real competitive season."

Somehow, Stewart has been able to put up big numbers despite the pain and lack of practice time. But with Matt Moore taking over at quarterback and receiver Steve Smith still out -- he caught passes Saturday from a ball machine for the first time since breaking his arm twice in the past year -- the Panthers have struggled offensively. After a lackluster showing in a scrimmage, the Panthers failed to score an offensive touchdown in Thursday's exhibition loss at Baltimore.

Getting Stewart back teamed with Williams could change that. They combined last season to be the first set of teammates in NFL history to each rush for more than 1,100 yards.

Not bad when one of those backs barely gets on the field between games.

"It will go away at some point," Stewart said of the pain. "When that is, you really can't tell."

Information from The Associated Press and ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter was used in this report.