CHARLOTTE -- The quality and depth of the Panthers' running backs can be encapsulated by one fact: the Pro Bowler of the group wasn't even the Panthers' leading rusher.
Granted, that circumstance transpired largely because DeAngelo Williams spent most of the season's last six weeks grappling with an ankle injury that ultimately ended his year in the first quarter of the 26-7 win over Minnesota in Week 15. But
It was against the Giants when Stewart broke the 1,000-yard mark, making the Panthers the sixth team with two 1,000-yard runners in the same season. Seven days later, Stewart picked up 125 yards on 16 plays, allowing the Panthers to become the first team with two 1,100-yard runners and allowing him to outgain Williams by 16 yards.
"To me, that's bigger than the Pro Bowl or anything else (individually)," Williams said. "That's something we did as a team.
"That was one of our hidden goals. We saw that Derrick Ward and Brandon Jacobs did it last year (for the Giants), and we knew that it was possible. The fortunate thing about (the ankle injury) is that it allowed (Jonathan) Stewart to rush for 1,000 yards."
The duo has become the league's sterling example of backfield symbiosis. They make each other more effective by saving each from wear and tear; neither had more than 221 carries during the season. And when one succeeds, the other is usually the first to help in the celebration; when Stewart went into four figures for the season, Williams led the line of congratulations on the Carolina sideline.
"(Williams said), 'We did it,'" Stewart said. "We always talked about getting a thousand yards. It didn't happen (in 2008), and it didn't look like it was going to happen (in 2009)."
Then Williams's ankle changed everything. It began bothering him in November and forced him to the sideline outright for the 16-6 win over Tampa Bay in Week 13, a game that began the Panthers' closing 4-1 run.
In 2008, the Panthers learned of Williams's potential. A year later, they discovered Stewart's.
"One of the coaches said it best: 'We've got two pieces of gold in the backfield,'" Williams said. "There's a lot of teams in the National Football League that would love to have the luxury we have."
The story of the Panthers' backfield, however, goes far beyond "Double Trouble."
THE PANTHERS UNEARTHED A GEM from the rabble of players released at September's roster deadline when they claimed Tyrell Sutton off waivers from the Green Bay Packers.
A tailback by trade, the Northwestern product's value proved to be his versatility, as he worked on special teams, returned kickoffs, pitched in as a relief runner when Williams was injured and, for one memorable afternoon inside the Louisiana Superdome, started at fullback when
"We all laughed about it initially. How's the smallest guy in the room going to play fullback?" the 5-foot-8, 213-pounder said. "As the week went on, we took it a lot more seriously."
Serious enough that Sutton carried the football on the first snap of his first regular season game, in one moment crossing off most of the "firsts" of his career - start, snap, game and carry (for nine yards), not to mention being at a new position.
"It wasn't so much being out of position. The only thing that was out of position was the title," Sutton said a few days after the starting assignment. "Playing fullback is basically the same as playing running back. The only difference is that you're blocking all the time."
HOOVER KNOWS ALL ABOUT THAT, having made the adjustment from running back to fullback early in his career. His experience there guided the advice he gave Sutton for his brief stint a the position: to maintain a runner's perspective when taking on a defender.
Counsel was all Hoover could provide during the five games he missed in 2009 -- two because of back spasms and three in November due to an ankle injury he suffered against Arizona. It was the first time that durability had been a concern for Hoover; he only missed three games in the first nine seasons of his career.
Fullback is a position that rewards wisdom and experience; often the best players at the position don't hit their peak effectiveness until their 30s. The list of Pro Bowlers of the last several years includes Tony Richardson, Lorenzo Neal and Mack Strong; each of them achieved their best results in their 10th, 11th, 12th and even 13th years of service. But it remains a high-wear position. The accumulation of a decade of hits -- and the two injuries in 2009 -- placed the notion of retirement into Hoover's consciousness.
"I think it always crosses your mind with stuff like that," Hoover said. "You keep fighting, you get a little healthier, you get out there and play. You never become healthy, but for the most part, I was able to get out here and play the second half of the season.
"Granted, (the ankle) still hurt. I still felt it every week. But for me it was functional enough to where I got out here and tried."
Blocking for the league's first-ever tandem of 1,100-yard runners amply demonstrates Hoover's skills. He has one year left on his contract, and he wants to fulfill it.
"I'd like to honor that," Hoover said. "We'll just have to see how they evaluate me, whether they want me here. I'd like to continue playing, whether here in Carolina or somewhere else. Hopefully it works out here.
"It depends on how they evaluate me, but I would like to be back and finish up the rest of my career as a Panther."
FIAMMETTA WAS DRAFTED to provide relief for Hoover and eventually assume a greater role within the offense. He started twice last season and played in 10 games, but befitting a position where the learning curve is especially steep, he struggled at times.
The play that best encapsulated the difficulty a rookie fullback endures came against Miami in Week 11, when he collided with left tackle
"Tony's a young player, and it's a learning experience," head coach John Fox said a day later. "He'll just get better for it."
Learning was also the defining characteristic of Mike Goodson's season, which saw him receive extensive work in the season finale after Stewart aggraved his Achilles tendon injury. Thirteen of his 22 carries and 44 of his 49 rushing yards came in that Week 17 win over the Saints; until that point most of his work had come on kickoff returns, where he led the Panthers with 352 yards on 17 returns.
Goodson did not play in half of the games last year, meaning that the most extensive glimpse of him was in the preseason, when he led the team with 197 rushing yards and a touchdown while averaging 4.9 yards per carry.
COMING THURSDAY: A detailed statistical breakdown of the Panthers' running backs.