Has Jonathan Stewart Earned the Lead-Back Role in Carolina?

CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 06: Jonathan Stewart #28 of the Carolina Panthers carries the ball during the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Bank of America Stadium on December 6, 2009 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Some may say that there is no “lead-back” role in Carolina, and they may be right.  However, one of the two Pro Bowl-caliber backs in Carolina must “start” the game.  One of the two has to play the first series, or the first several plays.  It is evident that John Fox prefers his backs to split carries.  But is his ideal split a 50-50 draw, similar to what we saw last season?  Probably not.

In 2008, when both backs were relatively healthy, we saw a 274 (DeAngelo) to 184 (Jonathan) split.  So DeAngelo Williams could easily have been called the Panthers’ lead-back in 2008.

Considering that both backs were healthy and available for all 16 games that year, we ended up with a more lopsided ratio. One could concluded that John Fox would ideally like his backs to share carries at a 60/40 ratio, rather than they nearly 50/50 percentage we saw in 2009 when DeAngelo Williams was limited to 13 games.

Granted, each season takes on it’s own identity.  Foxy is not going to come up with a ratio, and then be able to follow it perfectly for 16 games.  There are just too many factors that will either limit or increase either back’s workload.  But you’ve gotta have a plan, nonetheless. Foxy’s plan, as the evidence shows, is to split the carries somewhere closer to 60/40.

If the 60/40 split is the Panthers’ preference, is there an argument that Jonathan Stewart should get 60% to Williams’ 40%?  I think there is — or there should be.

Down the stretch during the 2009 season, Stewart put the team on his back, putting up some monster numbers.  During weeks 13, and 15-17 (all wins), Stewart averaged 24 carries, 140 yards per game, and found the end-zone in all four of those contests.  If you extrapolate (I love that word) those numbers over the course of a 16-game season, you’re looking at 384 carries; 2,240 yards, and 16 TDs.  Obviously he is not going to achieve these kind of numbers as long as he is part of a tandem with the talented Williams, but he has clearly stated his case for more carries with his impressive showing late in the year last year.

I’ll stop short of saying it, but I’ll ask — is Jonathan Stewart (right now) a better back than DeAngelo Williams?

Let’s examine both player’s durability, and other factors that must be taken into account when making this decision:

Despite missing all of the mini-camps and OTAs, and many of the practices during the season, Stewart (23 years, and 3 months old) has managed to play in all 32 games during his two years in the NFL.  His durability is not a question mark at this point, even if he does miss practice (que Allen Iverson’s ‘practice’ rant).  He also had a relatively small workload at Oregon, before joining the Panthers, so if anything, he is younger than his age states (in football years).

DeAngelo has missed six games in his four years in the league.  He has also been limited to single-digit carries because of injury in six other games during his career.  His durability is not really a huge concern, but when you couple it with his heavy workload in college, and his age (27 years, 2 months), now would be the time to limit his carries, in hopes of prolonging his career.  29 is that magic number for most running backs.

DeAngelo has two seasons before he hits that age plateau.  Assuming the plan is to re-sign him after the 2010 season — he’ll be an unrestricted free agent — it may be time to let Stewart shoulder slightly more of the load.

This posting is property of CatCrave.com and Fansided.com

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