Panthers’ Jonathan Stewart calls ease of return ‘muscle memory’

jjones@charlotteobserver.comNovember 14, 2013 

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Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart (28) says he’s in the flow already after two games back. He spent Carolina’s first seven games on injured reserve after ankle surgeries.

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Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart has only been back for two games, but he says he’s already in the flow.

“The muscle memory comes back pretty quickly,” Stewart said. “Something you’ve been doing all your life, it doesn’t take that long for it to come back. Especially after a game like last week, a hard-fought game where you have to bring your ‘A’ game for four quarters, where you have to get after it in the trenches, a game like that really helps.”

Stewart has rushed 22 times for 84 yards this season, and caught three passes for 22 yards.

The Panthers have been monitoring his touches in his first two games of the 2013 season. Stewart’s recovery from offseason ankle surgeries kept him out of practice until Week 9. He spent the first seven games on the physically unable to perform list.

Carolina coach Ron Rivera has said DeAngelo Williams, the team’s leading rusher with 565 yards this season, is the starter, but that he plans to have a healthy rotation of Williams, Stewart and Mike Tolbert.

Stewart, who’s been in the backfield with Williams since 2008, said sharing carries isn’t an issue.

“It’s never really mattered. Coach Skip (running backs coach John Skipper) does a really good job of rotating me, him and Tolbert in and out of the game. It’s been working. It doesn’t really matter as long as we get the W.”

Locker room culture: Steve Smith said some of the reports out of the Miami Dolphins’ locker room in the past two weeks have been head-scratching.

Reports of Richie Incognito bullying and hazing Jonathan Martin – from bullying Martin into paying $15,000 for a trip to threatening voicemails to holding position meetings in strip clubs – had Smith comparing the Miami situation to a forest fire that someone walks by and dumps gasoline on.

“Meetings at the strip club and getting fined for not participating,” Smith said. “I’ve never heard of that, ever. But it was going on and there were people that allowed it to happen and people who attended.

“We have a lot of fun in this locker room, but we also respect each other’s space and respect each other and I think that’s the most important part. I think everybody takes that very seriously.”

Smith, a 13-year veteran and the most tenured Panther, said he bought donuts for the receivers during his rookie year and carried the occasional helmet. On away games he would take food orders, sometimes paying with his own money and other times collecting money from teammates.

Smith said that when the Panthers played in Tampa in Week 8, he paid for the wide receivers’ dinner, and that at some point the favor will be returned.

“There are other times we went to dinner and somebody else has paid,” Smith said. “It’s a turn. Everybody takes turns. As far as making a guy pay for dinner on an everyday basis, I don’t think that’s right. And I think that’s the difference.

“In our room, everybody has paid for a meal. We’re not putting it on one guy.”

Connor returns: Dan Connor’s neck injury put him on the Giants’ injured reserve list in September, and after he started feeling better three weeks ago, he asked if he could be released in hopes of latching on with another team this year.

The linebacker called it fate that he re-joined the Panthers, the team that drafted him in 2008 and where he played for the first three seasons of his career.

“My last year here was coach (Ron) Rivera’s first year,” Connor said. “You see how much he wants it, and how he works and inspires guys. It’s nice to see it pay off, he and (defensive coordinator Sean) McDermott. And see the team play so well, and play with confidence. It’s great for the city of Charlotte. It’s fun for me to watch, even not being on Carolina earlier this season. Now that I’m here I have a chance to play for it, it’s really exciting.”

Rivera said the Panthers needed another linebacker on their roster, and with cornerback James Dockery needing shoulder surgery, Carolina moved him to IR to make room for Connor, who worked out for the team Tuesday and passed his physical prior to signing with Carolina.

“You want to make sure you have a guy with some veteran experience,” Rivera said. “Dan knows what we’re doing, he’s adapted very well, the guys in the locker room know him so it was natural for us.”

Helping hand: Rivera began his Thursday press conference by urging those who could help to text ‘TYPHOON’ to ‘90999’ to give $10 to Red Cross relief for those affected in the Philippines by the recent typhoon.

He and his wife, Stephanie, have relatives in the Philippines, and the coach said they’re safe.

Injury update: Two Panthers starters missed practice Thursday for non-football reasons. Fullback Mike Tolbert was out Thursday after his wife gave birth to their second child on Thursday morning. Rivera said mother and child are healthy.

Left tackle Jordan Gross took a veteran day off and spent the portion of practice open to the media on the exercise bike. He’s expected to play Monday.

Linebacker Chase Blackburn (foot), tight end Ben Hartsock (knee) and guard Chris Scott (knee) did not participate. Rivera said Saturday’s practice will be the “big day” for Blackburn’s availability come Monday.

Defensive tackle Dwan Edwards was limited in practice but Rivera said Edwards took the reps he was supposed to Thursday.

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9

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