They cheered when the 2015 Pro Bowl selection trotted to the sideline.
Some fans obviously have given up on the 30-year-old back, who in Week 4 became the organization’s all-time leading rusher with (then) 6,967 yards, but the Panthers haven’t.
“We believe in Jonathan,” coach Ron Rivera said Monday. “That is why we brought him back in and gave him the football again. That’s why we gave him the carry at the end of the game as well.”
The Panthers might believe in Stewart, but it might be time to admit that he has become a complementary piece to rookie Christian McCaffrey, instead of vice versa.
Or maybe it’s time to just declare McCaffrey the lead back.
The grind-it-out running game the Panthers (6-3) hoped to have with Stewart isn’t happening. He was held to 21 yards on 11 carries against Atlanta. Four games ago, he had minus-4 yards on eight carries.
Over the past five games, the 2008 first-round pick out of Oregon has 120 yards on 62 carries. That’s an average of 1.9 yards per carry by a back who has averaged 4.3 yards per carry in his career and had a career-high mark of 5.4 in 2011.
Thirty, remember, is an age when statistics show that productivity for backs declines.
Not that McCaffrey has been lighting it up in the running game. Before a career-best 66 yards on 15 carries in the 20-17 victory over the Falcons, he had 117 yards on 49 carries — or 2.4 yards per carry.
The eighth pick of the draft did most of his damage as a receiver prior to Sunday. But Sunday felt like a changing of the guard, even if the Panthers keep trotting Stewart out as the starter because of all he has done for the organization, on and off the field.
“He’s a big part of our identity,” offensive coordinator Mike Shula insisted.
But what is Carolina’s identity? Newton has been the leading rusher the past four games, with 251 yards on 40 carries.
Former wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin said he wasn’t surprised that the Panthers traded him to Buffalo a week ago because, “I could kind of feel that the offense was kind of going toward another direction.”
That direction is toward more speed, with players such as McCaffrey and second-round pick Curtis Samuel, a wide receiver out of Ohio State.
McCaffrey benefited the most from the Benjamin trade because he can play slot and wide receiver in addition to running back. He was on the field for 82 percent (53 of 65) of the snaps. That was up from 58 percent (38 of 65) the week before at Tampa Bay.
Stewart went from 43 percent (28 snaps) against the Buccaneers to 32 percent (21 snaps) against Atlanta. He was used as a decoy on an inside run on McCaffrey’s 4-yard touchdown run. Often prior to Sunday, McCaffrey was used more as a decoy in an attempt to open up inside running room for Stewart.
Asked if the offense could produce at an optimal level with Stewart as the inside presence, Rivera said, “Yes and no.”
“It’s the flow of the game,” he said. “If they are shutting things down on the outside, and we’ve got to run the ball up inside, I would much rather see Jonathan run it inside than ask Christian to do that.
“Although I think Christian has the ability for that, Jonathan is built for that.”
Stewart, at 5-foot-10 and 235 pounds, is a more powerful back than the 5-foot-11, 205-pound McCaffrey.
But when Carolina was trying to control the clock with about eight minutes left and a 20-10 lead, it went with McCaffrey and Cameron Artis-Payne for five plays. McCaffrey had three runs for 12 yards.
On the game’s last series, with Carolina trying to run out the final 1:42, McCaffrey had three straight carries before Newton ran off the final seven seconds with a rollout and pass out of bounds. One of those was an 8-yard run off right tackle.
Stewart had only two carries for 4 yards in the final quarter.
“Sometimes a game calls for a certain flavor, a certain style of play,” Rivera said. “As the game wears on and Mike makes decisions in terms of play-calling, it’ll dictate that.”
Both Rivera and Shula said they weren’t concerned about fumbling becoming an issue for Stewart, who before Sunday never had two fumbles in a game. In the same breath, Rivera said for Stewart to be productive, “it’s about touches.”
All signs point toward Stewart not getting the 18- to 20-plus touches a game he typically needs to be effective and wear defenders down with his power game. All signs point toward McCaffrey becoming a bigger part of the running game.
Shula doesn’t look at it that way and says the players don’t either.
“To me, that’s what’s unique about our football team and our offense,” he said. “It’s an unselfish group. On paper, yeah, we all want more stats. We all want 100-yard rushing games. We all want 300-yard passing games.
“More so than all those things, we want to go win. There’s no better feeling than there was yesterday.”