CHARLOTTE – The good thing the Panthers have going in the running game could get better still with the possible return of Jonathan Stewart from the physically unable to perform (PUP) list.
Head coach Ron Rivera said Monday that he's "cautiously optimistic" about the status of Stewart, who was placed on the PUP list in the preseason to continue the rehab process following offseason ankle surgery.
Stewart is eligible to practice as early as this week, though the team has five weeks to decide whether to return him to practice and then another three weeks from his first practice to decide whether to add him to the active roster.
"He's already worked out today, so we'll take a look at him tomorrow and see how it is, and then we'll start looking at what our options are," Rivera said. "He's at a point where he's doing a lot more, but he's been doing it on the side. (Head athletic trainer) Ryan (Vermillion) will work him out again tomorrow and see how he feels. Then we'll make a determination as we get ready for Wednesday's practice."
Stewart is still experiencing some soreness during and after his increasingly demanding workouts, but it's gotten progressively more manageable. He hasn't played since the Panthers' victory at Philadelphia in Week 12 last season.
"It's been since November 26th that I actually carried the ball. It's been a long time," Stewart said. "I'd like to get into a rhythm, but this is a professional sport, a business of being productive. When your name is called, you've got to produce.
"Rehab has been good. I've made a lot of strides toward getting back on the field. Now it's just wait and see."
The Panthers rank eighth in the NFL with 135.8 rushing yards per game. DeAngelo Williams leads the team with 394 rushing yards, and fullback Mike Tolbert and quarterback Cam Newton are tied for the team lead with two rushing touchdowns apiece. Tolbert and Newton each found the end zone on the ground in Sunday's 35-10 victory at the Minnesota Vikings, and Newton also found Tolbert for a 10-yard touchdown through the air.
"We've got a good blend going right now," Rivera said. "DeAngelo has taken most of the big carries, and he's done a great job. With a guy like Jonathan who would come in as a power inside guy, if he gets rolling, he can pound, pound, pound. Then all of a sudden, you've got a guy with DeAngelo's quickness and burst, and he can break a big one.
"It's something that's happened here in the past with those two guys, and with Michael Tolbert in the mix as well, we'll have a very good tandem of backs – even better than we have right now. I really like what we're doing, and we want to stay right along those lines."
Stewart, too, likes the direction of the offense, and he's excited about adding to it.
"It's been tough because I want to be out there competing with those guys and playing with them," Stewart said. "That's what I've been doing for the last six years – well, five years since I haven't done it yet this year. This is the longest I've ever been out, and seeing those guys when I know they're tired or a little banged up, I wish I could be there to alleviate what they're going through."