Jonathan Stewart is well aware of what people have said.
He has heard critics point to his contract. He knows many have questioned if he will ever be truly healthy again. He has watched more games than he has played the last two seasons.
The more time a player spends on the sideline, the more his importance fades from collective memories. But despite two straight forgettable seasons, time is still on Stewart’s side.
“I’m 27. Even though I’ve been banged up and still working through some kinks, the way I look at life is you have to look at the positive,” Stewart said when Black and Blue Review caught up with him recently. “The positive right now is that last year at this time I wasn’t working out and right now I’m working out.”
After playing in 97 percent of Carolina’s games his first four years, Stewart was active in just 45 percent of the Panthers’ 33 games the past two seasons. And the 18 times he sat out came after he signed a six-year, $37.8 million contract just before the start of the 2012 season.
For what it’s worth, that contract was restructured for the first time last offseason. Stewart’s $1 million base salary was lowered to $715,000, which also made his $1.5 million 2014 base salary fully guaranteed. That was until he restructured again this February, slicing his base to $785,000.
But many fans have been left frustrated by a Panthers’ difficult salary cap situation somewhat caused by how much former general manager Marty Hurney invested in running backs. Even if Carolina wanted to part ways with Stewart, doing so would further exacerbate the cap issues since the team would have to take on more than $18 million in dead money.
So a big contract, plus many missed games, has equaled plenty of criticism.
“I understand from the fan aspect of things that you want your best players playing,” Stewart admitted. “And when you lose, there’s a lot of finger pointing every which way. But that’s the nature of the business.”
Yet the Panthers stopped losing for a good portion of last season. And when they made their first postseason appearance since Stewart’s rookie year, he was ready.
After tearing his MCL against the Saints in Week 14, he was expected to be out four to six weeks. The playoff game against the 49ers put him at five weeks.
Stewart wanted to play. He felt he could play. He ended up on the inactive list.
“I don’t really like talking about the past because it’s irrelevant now. But it was tough to watch cause it was a playoff game and I have watched a lot of games the last two years,” Stewart said.
Unlike last offseason, when he had surgery on both ankles, Stewart hopes to be restriction-free when the Panthers ramp up their offseason program with OTAs later this month. But that optimism is the cautious sort.
“As of right now, the things I’m doing, I’m doing pretty well,” Stewart said, before adding, “But football is totally different from just training and running around.”
When he is healthy, Stewart can be really good. The problem the last two seasons is the “when” has not happened very often.
The Panthers used to be able to depend on him no matter what happened during the week. But Stewart still has time to remind those who have forgotten what he can do on Sundays.