CHARLOTTE -- It is the fondest hope of the Panthers and their fans that the "Double Trouble" duo of DeAngelo Williams and
The youth of the runners and the offensive line in front of them would seem to indicate that their best collective performances are ahead of them. But in a realm where even a slight injury can derail months and years of planning, and where teams spend countless hours examining game footage to find even the slightest of weaknesses, nothing is guaranteed.
"Every season is different from the season before," Williams said, "so we've got to work as hard as we did last year to continue the success we had."
But for the offseason at least, they're off to the same start they had last year -- right down to Stewart being sidelined throughout organized team activities.
While Williams ran about and around the practice field as he always did this summer, Stewart rested, watching from the sidelines while nursing a sore Achilles tendon. The sight was similar to the one from minicamp the previous year, when recovery from toe surgery kept him sidelined until training camp.
Of course, by the time last year's camp commenced, Stewart was ready. The 836 yards and 10 touchdowns he amassed in the season that followed showed that the injury was firmly behind him. He anticipates that this year's Achilles issue will be just as much in the past when he arrives for training camp.
"We've seen good progress," head coach John Fox said at the close of organized team activities. "We're most interested in having him ready for the season and anticipate that being the case.
STEWART'S ABSENCE FROM ACTION at OTAs left many repetitions in the hands of Decori Birmingham, who spent last year on the Panthers' practice squad.
"I got the opportunity to show the coaches that I know what I'm doing, because last year was kind of tough still trying to learn the playbook," Birmingham said. "Now I understand the playbook a lot better."
In 2008, Birmingham was the contingency plan that wasn't needed; both Williams and Stewart stayed healthy, leaving Nick Goings as the third runner throughout the season and limiting Birmingham's work to weekday afternoons. There he found more stability than he'd known in a career that has seen him bounce around practice squads while never making it onto the field in the regular season.
That consistency can only aid him in Spartanburg.
"It helps a lot, because I'm more comfortable with what I'm doing, so I can play at a different speed instead of thinking so much," Birmingham said. "I can just go out there, play football and react."
EXTRA WORK AT OTAS WENT down the line of running backs, with fourth-round selection Mike Goodson being another beneficiary. The non-contact nature of the work during those practices allowed Goodson to display his finest asset -- blinding speed.
"He's got some jets," quarterback
"I think I'm kind of like a curve-ball guy, a different element," Goodson said. "We have a good slasher (Williams), and Stew (Stewart) is a big guy. I just bring some speed on the edge and speed through the holes."
That speed could find itself on display in the Panthers' return game; Goodson received plenty of work on kickoff runbacks in OTAs and is expected to continue there at training camp.
GOODSON IS NOT THE SOLE 2009 DRAFTEE among the Panthers' running backs. But for Jamall Lee, his draft was that of the Canadian Football League, where his hometown British Columbia Lions selected him in the first round.
Teams in the CFL are required to use half of their active roster spot on Canadians -- or "non-imports," per CFL lingo. That makes the British Columbia native a valuable commodity on the 110-yard circuit. But he wanted to try his skills at the highest level before heading north.
"I want to push myself as far as I can go and see what happens," Lee said. "If it doesn't work out, I'm happy I took my shot and I'll go back home."
At a minimum, Lee can learn from some of the sport's finest -- Williams, Stewart and running backs coach Jim Skipper. But with a 6-foot-1, 225-pound frame and a 40-yard dash time of 4.39 seconds at the CFL Combine, Lee has the size and speed to draw some attention, if not a place on the active roster or practice squad.
Lee, Goodson and Birmingham already have the attention of the incumbent starter.
"I like all our tailbacks that we brought in this year. They're all fast, quick and can move," Williams said. "They're all high-quality backs. You've definitely got to keep your head on a swivel."