Rare sight: Oft-injured Stewart joins Panthers for practice

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 the Panthers' 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 ribbing from his coaches and teammates. While he has never missed a regular-season game and racked up big numbers and records in his first two NFL seasons while paired with fellow running back DeAngelo Williams, foot problems have kept Stewart 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," Panthers 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 during his final season at Oregon.

Stewart 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 rushing yards, Stewart developed pain in his left foot that he said was an offshoot of overcompensating for his toe.

Stewart played all 16 games last season and rushed for a team-best 1,133 yards, but he was in constant pain and rarely practiced more than once a week. He underwent surgery to "clean up" the area between his Achilles' 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 will be cleared for contact, or if he will play in a preseason game. It doesn't appear he will 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 wide receiver Steve Smith still out because of a broken forearm, the Panthers have struggled offensively. After a lackluster showing in a scrimmage, Carolina failed to score an offensive touchdown in Thursday's preseason loss at Baltimore.

Having Stewart teamed with Williams again could change that. Stewart and Williams were the first teammates in NFL history to each rush for more than 1,100 yards last season. Stewart also led the Panthers with 10 touchdowns.

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."

Defensive end Tyler Brayton sat out Saturday after spraining his left ankle in Thursday's loss at Baltimore.

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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