Carolina Panthers  

 

If Carolina lets Williams walk, Stewart sprints into huge year

Sam Sharpe / US Presswire
A confluence of circumstances has Jonathan Stewart poised for a major breakthrough season in Carolina.


We've seen over the past few seasons that one of the main contributors to a young quarterback's success has been an effective running game.

In looking at trends in that regard, I'm pegging Carolina's Jonathan Stewart to emerge as one of the top running backs in the NFL next season, barring injury. First off, Stewart is a good enough back that he surpassed 1,000 yards while splitting carries with DeAngelo Williams in 2009. He's also good enough for Carolina to let Williams test free agency.

If Williams is not re-signed, Stewart could get his crack as the team's main ball carrier for the first time in his three-year career. That opportunity paired with playing alongside an upstart quarterback -- in this case, rookie Cam Newton -- could bode well for Stewart.

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Michael Turner, who played behind LaDainian Tomlinson for four seasons in San Diego, got his chance to be a starter in Atlanta during Matt Ryan's rookie season. He pounded out a career-high 1,699 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2008.

When Baltimore's Ray Rice got his first chance to be the workhorse in Baltimore in 2009 -- quarterback Joe Flacco's second season -- Rice rushed for 1,339 yards and caught 78 passes for 702 yards. When Jamaal Charles become the main back for the Chiefs in 2009 -- Matt Cassel's first time opening the season as the starter -- he rushed for 1,120 yards with 40 receptions.

While this is hardly an exact science, we've seen running backs capitalize on getting their chance to start while being matched with a young quarterback. Offensive coordinators tend to focus more on the running game while the quarterback develops. Meanwhile, running backs that have waited their turns are eager to prove themselves. A motivated running back is often the best running back.

The one thing that doesn't seem to jibe is that defenses know teams with young quarterbacks will run the ball, but they still haven't regularly slowed down the running game. Even in situations where a new quarterback arrives and there's an incumbent tailback, like Thomas Jones in New York with Mark Sanchez or Steven Jackson in St. Louis with Sam Bradford, running the ball has worked. Wins also tended to accompany the success of the running game.

There might be no specific reason why these examples have worked, but my guess is simple: Those teams worked on the run game. Offensive linemen like to run block, plus, pounding the ball can hide other flaws. There is no doubt that Carolina is going to run the ball. The offensive line is solid, plus it's what teams with young quarterbacks and limited receiving options do. Stewart should greatly benefit -- and so could the Panthers.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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