NFC South: Mike Tolbert

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Carolina Panthers have gone from one of the most expensive backfields in the NFL to one of the cheapest, at least in terms of those who will be on the field.

DeAngelo Williams ($6 million), Jonathan Stewart ($4.85 million) and Mike Tolbert ($3.35 million) represent 12.52 percent of Carolina’s 2014 salary cap.

All three -- Williams (ankle), Stewart (sprained knee) and Tolbert (IR, fractured leg) -- will miss Sunday’s game against Chicago.

They will be replaced by Darrin Reaves ($370,000), Chris Ogbonnaya ($435,882) and Fozzy Whittaker ($495,000), who represent 2.36 percent of the salary cap.

The replacement’s combined salary of $1,301,470 is less than that of 16 players on the 53-man roster.

Not that the replacements are complaining. They’re thankful for the opportunity.

For them, this is the chance to prove that perhaps one day they deserve a big salary. If opponents want to overlook them because they’re basically a group of no-names, that’s OK.

“Some people may not think that,’’ Whittaker said. “But we know the work we’ve put in and we know the amount of intensity we’re going to bring to the game. Them not viewing that as positive or negative, man, it just gives us a better edge.

“We hope they overlook us, so whenever we come [into] the game we’re able to show what we can do.’’

Whittaker and company are replacing a lot -- and not just in terms of salary. Williams, Stewart and Tolbert have a combined 2,800 carries for 12,801 yards and 106 touchdowns. Whittaker, Reaves and Ogbonnaya have a combined 184 carries for 765 yards and one touchdown.

Of that, 144 carries and 660 yards belong to Ogbonnaya, who has been dubbed “Obi-Wan Kenobi’’ by quarterback Cam Newton.

And he was signed on Monday.

Williams and Stewart were first-round draft picks in 2006 and 2008. Reaves and Whittaker were undrafted, and Ogbonnaya was a seventh-round pick.

Talk about pressure.

“I wouldn’t call it extra pressure,’’ said Whittaker, who led Carolina in rushing during the preseason with 162 yards. “Things are going to happen, and whenever it’s your turn, step up.’’

The Panthers (2-2) need somebody to step up in the run game that ranks 29th in the league, averaging 71 yards a game after averaging 126.6 yards a game last season.

As Rivera said earlier in the week, the situation at running back is a bit scary. The good news? Rivera has been impressed with the way the replacements have handled practice, from picking up blitzes to catching passes out of the backfield.

“I’m feeling pretty comfortable with those three guys right now,’’ Rivera said. “Just that we have some quality guys that have gotten some time under their belts.’’

They don’t cost a lot, either.

Time to unleash Cam Newton once again

September, 29, 2014
Sep 29
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It's becoming a regular segment of Ron Rivera's Monday afternoon news conferences.

When will you turn quarterback Cam Newton loose?

Each week the Carolina Panthers coach indicates Newton, who underwent left ankle surgery in March and suffered fractured ribs in August, is getting healthier and closer to that moment. But each Sunday the play-calling does nothing to show Newton has reached that point.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesCam Newton has rushed for only 33 yards in his three games this season.
Over the past two weeks against Pittsburgh and Baltimore he has rushed a combined four times for 14 yards. In three starts, a player who accounted for 31.1 percent of Carolina's rushing the past three years, has 33 yards on eight carries. That's about one percent of the rush offense.

Newton has become such a fixture in the pocket that it looks like he's almost scared to run.

Rivera said it's tempting to turn Newton loose. It has to be more so after consecutive losses in which the Panthers have been outscored 75-29.

"But we have to do things the right way,'' Rivera said on Monday, 24 hours after Newton rushed two times for 7 yards in a 38-10 loss at Baltimore. "You don’t want to unleash him unless he’s ready to be unleashed.

"We’ve got to listen to what the trainers and doctors are saying, and we’ve got to listen to what he’s telling us.''

Newton's lack of mobility isn't the only reason the Panthers rank 29th in rushing and 32nd in red zone efficiency. The offensive line has been way too inconsistent and injuries have sidelined the top three running backs -- DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert -- for much of the year.

But the shackles on Newton have at least contributed to the struggles in both areas. His 28 rushing touchdowns over the past three years rank third only to running backs Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch.

"I wish I could say, 'Hey! We're going to cut him loose this week!' '' offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. "I don't want to lie to you.' That's something we're going to talk about this week. It's something we have to monitor every week for sure. But he's getting healthier and ... we'll see.''

It's understandable the Panthers are being cautious. It's well documented that Newton has been hit more than twice as many times (467) as any other quarterback over the past three seasons.

It's also well documented that the Panthers want to cut back on those hits.

But there comes a point where Carolina has to let Newton be who he is, and that's a quarterback who makes plays with his legs and his arm. If they don't then forget about signing him to a long-term deal.

“It’s very hard,'' Rivera said of holding Newton back. "You can see it. You just know he wants to cut loose and do certain things. You can feel it, and a lot of times you see him start to do it, but it’s coming. We’ve got to do this the right way.”

That has been the theme since Newton sat out the first game to give his ribs one extra week to heal.

The upside to this is Newton is completing 63.8 percent of his passes, up from his 60.0 career percentage. He hasn't thrown an interception. He has made throws, such as the 26-yarder to Jerricho Cotchery in which he threaded the ball past the cornerback on Sunday, he wouldn't have made four years ago.

But he's still getting hit a lot. He has been sacked nine times in three games, putting him on pace to be sacked 45 times in 15 games. He was sacked 43 in 16 a year ago.

If Newton is going to get sacked, he might as well do it while attempting to gain yardage.

Maybe this will be the week.

"As he gets healthier and healthier, the offense is going to start to expand,'' Rivera said. "That’s the best part, too. That for us is a huge plus. But if we don’t take care of what we need to get corrected running the ball and stopping the run, it’s going to be a long season for us.

"These are things that we know, these are objectives we have, and we’re going to work on those things.”
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It's time for the Carolina Panthers to unleash their secret weapon on the Baltimore Ravens.

Richie "The Mauler" Brockel.

Brockel is a tight end/fullback who, at 6-foot-1 and 255 pounds, is one of the toughest players on the roster. He practices and plays with an attitude. You could see it best during training camp when he consistently handled the team's top linebackers in one-on-one drills.

[+] EnlargeCarolina's Richie Brockel
Jason Bridge-USA TODAY SportsCould Richie Brockel find a role similar to the one occupied by Brad Hoover?
Carolina's running game needs an attitude, particularly if it's not going to unleash quarterback Cam Newton.

What better player to take a chance on, particularly with Jonathan Stewart (sprained knee) likely out, Mike Tolbert (fractured leg) on short-term injured reserve and DeAngelo Williams nursing a hamstring injury that has kept him out of the last two games.

The Panthers could rely on undrafted rookie Darrin Reaves, but my vote goes to Brockel.

"I'm ready,'' the former Boise State player said.

Don't laugh. Just check out your Carolina media guide and look for the name Brad Hoover.

Late in the 2000 season, the Carolina backfield was decimated by injuries to Tshimanga Biakabatuka and William Floyd heading into a Monday night game against Green Bay.

In stepped Hoover, a 6-0, 245-pound fullback who had been signed as an undrafted rookie out of Western Carolina. A kid considered too slow to play in the NFL, he basically was the last hope at running back.

He carried 24 times for 117 yards and caught three passes for 41 yards as the Panthers shocked Brett Favre and the Packers 31-14.

Brockel's rushing résumé heading into Baltimore isn't as good as Hoover's. Since carrying three times for 12 yards as a rookie in 2011, he has one carry for 1 yard.

He's caught only four passes for 25 yards.

But what defines Brockel is toughness and determination. He rides his bicycle to the stadium on most days instead of driving. To supplement his income, he spent part of his offseason doing income taxes for an accounting firm.

"Richie is a jack of all trades,'' coach Ron Rivera said during camp. "He does the dirty work. There's a toughness about Richie too that I like that helps transfer over to his teammates.''

Again, the running game needs that.

"Running the football in the NFL is all about attitude,'' Brockel said. "You've got to have it in your head you're going to win on every play. When you have the ball in your hands you've got to have the attitude you're not going to get taken down.

"It starts up front and goes all the way back to the running backs. If they all have that mindset then that's when you run the ball effectively.''

The Panthers haven't run effectively. In two of their three games they fell short of 100 yards, something they did in only two of 16 games last season.

Their 72.3 yards rushing per game ranks 29th in the league and is more than 50 yards less than a year ago. According to ESPN Stats & Information, their 3.2 yards per rush is the second-lowest average through the first three games in team history.

Williams will be a boost unless he suffers a setback between now and Sunday. He brings, as Newton said, confidence to a unit with a lot of new players.

But Williams' strength is getting to the corner. Brockel is a straight-ahead bruiser.

"Without a doubt, let Richie run the ball,'' tight end Ed Dickson said.

Rivera doesn't sound convinced. While he agrees Brockel can do some of same the things as Tolbert -- protect the quarterback, lead block and catch out of the backfield -- "he's not as nimble of a runner as Mike.''

The Panthers don't need nimble. They need positive yards.

"I can go straight ahead, I can cut back and I can find the hole,'' Brockel said.

Enough to match what Hoover did on MNF in 2000?

"It would be a sight to be seen,'' Brockel said. "If it comes to that, it could probably end up happening.''
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In order to protect quarterback Cam Newton, the Carolina Panthers may be hurting themselves.

Newton is on pace to rush 45 times for 195 yards this season. He averaged 121 carries for 677.3 yards rushing the past three seasons when he led all NFL quarterbacks in that category.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneThrough three games, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is rushing for less yardage this season than he was at the same point in 2013.
He rushed only twice for seven yards in Sunday night's 37-19 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. He said the game plan didn't really call for him to run.

As a result, the Panthers are averaging 72.3 yards rushing per game, or 54.3 yards less than they did a season ago when they were one of the top running teams in the league. Only Oakland, Jacksonville and Chicago, which plays Monday night, are averaging fewer.

The Panthers want to limit Newton's running because he underwent left ankle surgery in March and suffered fractured ribs in August that forced him to miss the opener at Tampa Bay. That means opponents can focus on the backs without worrying about Newton taking off.

So it begs the question?

Can the Panthers be an effective running team without Newton carrying 31.1 percent of the running game as he did the past three seasons?

"We know that he was a big part of what we do," coach Ron Rivera said on Monday. "The thing that this shows us is we can't rely on him all the time. So now we've got to find other answers and ways to do that."

That may be easier said than done. Leading rusher DeAngelo Williams has missed the past two games with a hamstring injury. Jonathan Stewart is questionable for Sunday's game at Baltimore with a severe knee sprain and Mike Tolbert is out with a hairline fracture in his right leg.

If Williams can't return, and with Fozzy Whittaker hampered by a quad injury, that leaves the running game in the hands of Darrin Reaves, who was signed from the practice squad on Saturday.

It may be time for Newton to help.

There's risk. The offensive line has been underwhelming the past two weeks. The Steelers manhandled them with a series of stunts and blitzes, sacking Newton three times and hitting him six more times.

Rivera said he was not pleased with that, "by no stretch of the imagination."

"He took a shot on the sideline that I was a little disappointed in," said Rivera in explaining why he wants Newton running less. "He's gonna take those shots. Again, one of the things we want to do this year is eliminate those or limit them."

In the same breath, Rivera said, "We've got to understand the way he plays."

Newton always has played with his arm and his legs. It made him special. To protect him, the Panthers have made him one-dimensional. They have made the offense one-dimensional.

"Right now he's not quite where we need him," Rivera said. "He will get there. The thing we have to do in the meantime is pick it up. Other people around him have got to play ... play well."

That sounded like a challenge to the offensive line. That the Panthers didn't really run the read option against Pittsburgh, that Newton never attempted to run other than his two scrambles, put more pressure on the line to be flawless.

It was far from that.

"The disappointing thing about this is he was 24 for 35, 250 yards, one touchdown and a quarterback rating of 98.5," said Rivera, reading Newton's passing statistics against Pittsburgh. "If you tell me that's what he's going to average throughout the year, I'd take that every day of the week. You're going to win more football games, I believe."

Newton's quarterback rating is 99.4 in two games, compared to a high of 88.8 last season. The difference has been his running. He simply hasn't done it.

The Panthers apparently are in no rush to turn him loose, either.

Asked whether the running game can be the same without Newton being a threat, Rivera said emphatically, "It's going to have to."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera admits opponents might not respect the running of Cam Newton as much as they have the past three seasons with the quarterback continuing to recover from injuries.

But Rivera has no doubt opponents still respect Carolina's running game.

“You look at the last game we played and they had nine [players] in the box, eight in the box a lot," said Rivera, referring to Sunday's 24-7 victory over Detroit. "They respect the run game."

Tampa Bay also loaded up to stop the run in the opener, a 20-14 Carolina victory in which the Panthers played without Newton, who was sidelined with fractured ribs.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsWith DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert hurting, Cam Newton might take off running a little more on Sunday night.
That, in part, explains why the running game has struggled. Carolina is averaging 87.5 yards in two games, compared to 126.6 yards a game last season.

Leading rusher DeAngelo Williams sat out the Detroit game with a hamstring injury and is questionable for Sunday night's game against Pittsburgh, and that also is a factor.

There also has been a lack of communication up front.

Then there's Newton. His four rushes -- including one kneel-down -- for 19 yards against Detroit tied a career low.

Newton averaged 5.8 carries and 42.3 yards per game the last three seasons. His 2,032 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns in the past three seasons are by far the most of any NFL quarterback.

With Williams and running back/fullback Mike Tolbert (chest contusion) banged up, there might be more of a temptation for Newton to run against a Pittsburgh defense that is surrendering 170 yards rushing a game.

Don't be surprised if the Panthers turn the quarterback loose more than they did against Detroit. Newton looked as healthy as he has in months on Friday, not wearing the flak jacket during a practice in shorts.

"I never go into a game trying to force the issue," Newton said. "My main focus is always take what the defense gives me. If it's a scramble, I'm going to take it. If it's a run that coach calls, I'm going to take it. Trying to execute this offense as best as I can."

As good as Newton looked Friday, Rivera doesn't believe his quarterback will feel 100 percent until sometime in February, after the season is over, because of the pounding he'll take.

Coming into the season, Newton had been hit more than twice as many times (467) as any other quarterback the past three years.

Newton remains adamant he won't change his style and slide instead of diving forward for extra yardage. He didn't slide against Detroit.

"The bigger issue is me staying healthy, staying away from big hits, as I always have," Newton said. "When that's all the defense gives me, get down and get down fast."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams returned to practice on Friday and is expected to play in Sunday night's prime-time game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The team's all-time leading rusher missed last week's 24-7 victory over Detroit with what has been called a thigh injury, but he clarified on Friday that it's a hamstring injury. He also was limited in practice much of this week and continues to be listed as questionable.

But Williams took reps with the first team on Friday and appears ready to go, barring a setback.

Also back at practice were running back Mike Tolbert (chest contusion) and wide receiver Jason Avant (hamstring). Both are expected to play.

Coach Ron Rivera said he's most concerned about starting wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery (hamstring), who did not practice Friday and is listed as questionable. He said Cotchery ran on the treadmill in the pool and will be re-evaluated on Saturday.

Cotchery said he likely will be a game-time decision, adding he's not so much worried about playing against his former team as he is being ready for the long haul.

Rivera said no decision has been made on whether to bring a player up from the practice squad to take defensive end Greg Hardy's spot on the 53-man roster. Hardy on Wednesday was placed on the commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved.

The decision to use the spot will be determined by the injury situation. Rivera said running back Darrin Reaves or one of two wide receivers -- Stephen Hill or Marcus Lucas -- could be brought up.

Rivera also said there's a chance that spot is left open for defensive end Frank Alexander, who's set to return on Sept. 29 from a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- For much of the past two years -- even much of training camp this year -- Jonathan Stewart was the Carolina Panthers' running back that spent most of practice riding the stationary bicycle and working with the trainer.

Talk about role reversals.

On Wednesday, Stewart and practice squad player Darrin Reaves were the only healthy backs with DeAngelo Williams (thigh), Mike Tolbert (chest) and Fozzy Whittaker (thigh) unable to participate.

On Thursday, Tolbert returned on a limited basis, but Williams and Whittaker still were held out.

"Yesterday seemed like the roles switched," said Stewart, plagued by ankle injuries the past two seasons and a hamstring injury at the start of training camp. "Usually, I'm that guy on the bike."

While coach Ron Rivera was optimistic Williams would be available for Sunday night's prime time game against Pittsburgh, Tolbert remains a question mark.

Rivera said Tolbert still isn't in position to take a hit after taking a blow to the rib area during Sunday's 24-7 victory against Detroit. Tolbert called the hit from defensive tackle Nick Fairely the hardest he's taken in seven NFL seasons.

Rivera hasn't ruled out the possibility that Reaves could be brought up from the practice squad to fill defensive end Greg Hardy's roster spot.

The team's 2013 sack leader on Wednesday was placed on the commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved.

Rivera also didn't rule out calling up a wide receiver, Stephen Hill or Marcus Lucas, if a lingering thigh injury sidelines Jason Avant. Hill played the past two seasons with the New York Jets before being released.

Avant went from limited in Wednesday's practice to not participating.

DeAngelo Williams ready to return

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers expect all-time leading rusher DeAngelo Williams to return to practice on Wednesday and be ready for Sunday night's game against Pittsburgh.

Williams missed Sunday's 24-7 victory against Detroit that improved Carolina to 2-0 with a thigh injury that flared up after Wednesday's practice.

Without him, the Panthers rushed for only 62 yards, the team's fewest since Week 10 of the 2012 season when it had 52 yards on 21 carries against Denver. Thirty-seven of those came from Jonathan Stewart, and 22 of those came on one run.

"It was a tough day,'' Carolina coach Ron Rivera said on Monday.

Rivera hopes Williams, who led the team in rushing with 72 yards on 14 carries in the opener, will provide a boost. If anything, he will restore depth to a unit that saw Mike Tolbert suffer a shoulder contusion in the second half and Fozzy Whittaker go down with a quad injury.

Rivera said Whittaker would be listed as week to week. Tolbert appears all right.

Quarterback Cam Newton jokingly limped into the locker room when he noticed reporters watching him. Newton underwent offseason ankle surgery in March and fractured his ribs during an Aug. 22 exhibition game that forced him to miss the opener at Tampa Bay.

Rivera said Newton's foot was a little sore, actually calling that a good thing.

"Because it’s more sore than his back,” Rivera said. “Which is good. At least, I think it’s good. He’s moving around pretty good and he’s feeling pretty good about himself.

"I thought he played a heckuva football game.”

Newton completed 22 of 34 pass attempts for 281 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed four times for 19 yards.

DeAngelo Williams (thigh) questionable

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams did not practice on Friday for the second straight day with a thigh injury and is listed as questionable for Sunday's home opener against the Detroit Lions.

Williams did run prior to practice, but his status for the game is up in the air.

"I'm concerned,'' coach Ron Rivera said. "He's a running back and he's got to rely on that burst. Based on what he ran today, I've got to see where he is tomorrow. If he's the slightest big hampered by it, [he'll sit].''

Williams, 31, led Carolina (1-0) with 72 yards rushing in last week's 20-14 victory over Tampa Bay. He practiced full on Wednesday, then came in with a sore thigh on Thursday.

"It's the burst you always worry about,'' Rivera said.

Williams led the team in rushing with 843 yards last season and is the team's all-time leader with 6,627 rushing yards and 46 rushing touchdowns.

He has dedicated this season to his mother, who died of breast cancer in May. He died his hair pink for the opener at Tampa Bay.

If Williams doesn't play, Jonathan Stewart will get the start. Stewart has missed most of the last two seasons with ankle injuries, but said prior to this season he felt the best he has in three years.

Stewart has 4,036 career rushing yards. He had a career-best 1,133 yards in 2009 when he and Williams became the first pair of backs to rush for more than 1,100 yards on the same team in the same season.

Rivera said Stewart would split carries with Mike Tolbert and Fozzy Whittaker if Williams can't play. Whittaker led the team in rushing during the preseason.

Meanwhile, tight end Greg Olsen returned to practice after leaving on Thursday to be with his son T.J., who is recovering from his third open heart surgery since being born in 2012 with a congenital heart defect.

Rivera didn't go into details but said things were going well for Olsen's son.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams has added motivation heading into Sunday's opener at Tampa Bay.

His mother.

Sandra Hill died in May after a long battle with breast cancer. Williams hasn't done interviews since then, other than a first-person article for Peter King's "Monday Morning Quarterback" website.

[+] EnlargeDeAngelo Williams
Sam Sharpe/USA TODAY SportsDeAngelo Williams is dedicating his 2014 season to his mother, who died in May after battling breast cancer.
In the piece, Williams discussed with great passion what his mother meant to him and how his four aunts also died of cancer. He talked about his mother's smile, how she always was there for others fighting the cancer.

"Breast cancer, whether I like it or not, is part of my family’s story,'' wrote Williams, who is credited with convincing the NFL to allow players to wear pink each October to raise awareness for the disease. "That’s why I am so passionate about raising awareness, because I have seen firsthand how it can impact others.''

Williams' silence during offseason workouts and the preseason has almost been deafening, mainly because he's always been one of the more fun-loving, free spirits in the locker room whom reporters gravitated toward.

There was a glimpse of that during Friday's practice as he gave an impromptu update on quarterback Cam Newton, who is questionable for Sunday with fractured ribs.

"He's not limited today,'' Williams shouted to nearby reporters as Newton threw passes.

Running backs coach Jim Skipper said Williams, 31, has dedicated this season to his mother.

"Outwardly, he's the same,'' he said. "But you know that is a tough thing for him to go through.''

Football has been an escape for Williams. Backfield mates Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert have been two of his biggest supporters. They are, as Stewart said, a tight-knit group that doesn't worry about who gets the most carries or scores the most touchdowns.

"We don't just work together,'' Tolbert said. "We're actually true friends. I look at him as a brother, so we hang out off the field. Our wives know each other and our kids play with each other.

"You could never put the loss of your mother behind, but just being here in the day to day, not having to sit at home thinking about the pain you're going through, helps him. Do I think he's still feeling the pain and the hurt? Yes. But do I think being here helps? Yes.''

Williams is Carolina's career leader in rushing yards (6,627), rushing touchdowns (46) and 100-yard rushing games (18). He led the team in rushing last season with 843 yards, while Stewart missed half the season with ankle and knee problems.

With Stewart and Williams healthy, along with Tolbert, who can play fullback or tailback, the Panthers have one of the deepest backfields in the league.

One just has a heavier heart than the others, although they all share in his pain.

"It's something that not only he was dealing with, but we were dealing with as well,'' Tolbert said.

The whole team has dealt with it to a degree.

"The only thing I'll say about it is DeAngelo is a heck of a young man who has handled a very tough situation and has done the best he can to handle it,'' coach Ron Rivera said. "He truly loved his mother and still does tremendously.

"I know she was a major figure in his life and his development. And what she's meant for the whole 'wear the pink' breast cancer awareness is tremendous. He's done as great a job as he can handling it. It's tough. I can't imagine.''
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Is "Double Trouble" back?

If anybody on the Carolina Panthers' coaching staff knows, it would be running backs coach Jim Skipper.

Skipper was here in 2009 when DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart became the first running backs from the same team to rush for more than 1,100 yards each in the same season.

[+] EnlargeDeAngelo Williams & Jonathan Stewart
Chuck Burton/AP PhotoThe Panthers' backfield will feature a fully healthy "Double Trouble" in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart for the first time since the 2009 season.
Everybody else on the Carolina coaching staff has to watch film to appreciate just how potent this one-two punch was for a three-year stretch before Stewart began having injuries that limited him to only 15 games the past two seasons.

So Skipper can speak better than anyone on whether the backs, aptly nicknamed "Double Trouble" five years ago, are back as Carolina prepares for Sunday's opener at Tampa Bay.

"It's all there," he said. "Oh, these guys, they really haven't lost a step. If anything, they've gained overall experience so that's got to enhance their overall game. It's good to see these guys all healthy and back at it."

Carolina coach Ron Rivera has watched film of Williams and Stewart from 2009. He says they, along with fullback/running back Mike Tolbert, can be dynamic.

That would make Williams and Stewart the "Dynamic Duo."

The key, outside of a rebuilt offensive line, is keeping Stewart healthy, something he hasn't been since the 2011 season when he rushed for 761 yards and caught 47 passes for 413 yards due to severe ankle injuries that required surgery on both.

After recovering from a hamstring injury that kept him out of all of training camp in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and forced him to miss the first preseason game, Stewart has looked like his old but new self.

"He looks like he did when he first came in," Skipper said. "That's all a big plus. To his credit, he kept on grinding while trying to get healthy and he stayed into the game mentally.

"The only thing he couldn't do was be out there physically, but mentally he was a pro in the classroom."

Stewart has shown flashes of his ability in the preseason. He scored twice in an Aug. 17 win against Kansas City, the first time he'd been in the end zone since 2012.

"He runs so hard," center Ryan Kalil said. "He doesn't go down. He fights for every yard. With that you get some of the nicks and knacks that he gets. The guy just fights and fights and fights.

"I know it kills him to not be able to stay out there all the time, but it's part of the game. When he does get back out there you realize why he is so special and why you keep giving him chances to come back."

Williams has been quiet during the preseason -- at least as it pertains to interviews. He hasn't done any. He lost his mother to breast cancer in May, and anybody that knows the 31-year-old back knows they were close.

"Outwardly, he's the same," Skipper said. "But you know that is a tough thing for him to go through, and he's probably dedicating the season to his mom, and that's all good."

Williams appears to have found the fountain of youth. He led Carolina in rushing last season with 843 yards to go with 26 catches for 333 yards. At an age when most running backs see a significant drop in production, he looks as strong as ever.

But having Stewart back will help. Not only will it give the offense a change of pace -- Stewart is the more physical inside runner and Williams quicker off the corner -- but it keeps the numbers of carries for Williams down.

Fresh legs typically mean more production, particularly at an older age. But again, the line must perform, particularly against a stout Tampa Bay defensive front.

"Yes, Double Trouble, baby!" Rivera said at the mention of Williams and Stewart. "They can be a formidable group again. If Jonathan can continue to stay healthy and perform the way he did on a consistent basis, we're going to be back to where these guys can be. We'll be very productive, that's for sure, especially as a tandem."

Skipper likes the depth one through four, adding little-known Fozzy Whittaker to the mix. Whittaker was impressive enough during the preseason, leading the team in rushing, to make 2013 sixth-round pick Kenjon Barner expendable in a trade to Philadelphia.

"All can play," Skipper said.

But one and two are the keys.

"That's how things started out when I got here," Stewart said. "I know a lot of people have been missing that. We missed it. I missed it. I'm pretty stoked about it."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- That the Carolina Panthers traded running back Kenjon Barner to the Philadelphia Eagles for a conditional seventh-round draft pick in 2015 shouldn't come as a surprise.

Barner's spot on the roster was shaky at best after the performances of Fozzy Whittaker and Darrin Reaves in the first two preseason games.

Whittaker, who originally signed with the Arizona Cardinals as an undrafted rookie in 2012, rushed for 71 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries in Sunday night's 28-16 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. He also caught one pass for 22 yards.

Reaves, an undrafted rookie, rushed for 19 yards and a touchdown in the exhibition opener against Buffalo.

With the top three backs set in DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert, only one or two spots were open at that position.

Whittaker and Reaves showed a tough, physical running style that the Panthers look for in their ball control offense. Barner didn't. He had 1 yard on eight carries in the opener and 18 yards on seven carries in the second game.

A sixth-round pick out of Oregon, where he played for current Eagles coach Chip Kelly, in 2013, he also struggled in pass protection.

Barner was competing as a kickoff and punt returner as well. But the Panthers want to give undrafted rookie wide receiver Philly Brown a hard look as the punt returner and there are others equally capable of returning kickoffs.

Getting a seventh-round pick was a bargain since Barner likely wouldn't have made the 53-man roster.
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Mike Shula has a lot of new toys. He got some because the old toys were getting, well, old. He got some because opponents wanted to play with his old toys more than management was willing to pay to keep them.

The Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator still is learning everything these new toys can do, but he likes what he's seen so far -- particularly from a certain 6-foot-5, 240-pound gadget after his spectacular catch in Friday night's 20-18 preseason loss to Buffalo.

Shula believes he has flexibility to have more fun with this new toys than his old ones, and that has the potential to make his offense better than a year ago.

"Yeah!" Shula said. "Heck yeah!"

There's plenty of room to improve.

The Panthers ranked 26th in total offense in 2013, averaging 316 yards a game. They were 29th in passing (190.2 yards per game) and 18th in scoring (22.9 points per game).

[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesKelvin Benjamin's touchdown catch was a reason for excitement as the Carolina Panthers have big plans for their big target.
They were able to go 12-4 because the defense was ranked second in the league, the offense was among the best at ball control and quarterback Cam Newton made more game-winning clutch pays than he had during his first two seasons.

But it was obvious the offense needed an overhaul if the overall team was to improve. That's why Shula is excited about his new toys, particularly as it pertains to his new wide receivers -- rookie Kelvin Benjamin (the 6-5 toy), veterans Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant -- and tight end Ed Dickson.

"It been great," Shula said. "They've come in with a workmanlike attitude, very serious, eager to prove themselves and earn a spot on the team. Competition is a beautiful thing. These guys get along good."

Shula isn't dishing on his old toys. But wide receiver Steve Smith, who was released in March, is 35 and at the end of his career. He didn't always get along. Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon were adequate, but not irreplaceable.

Sometimes you have to tear things apart to move forward. That's what Carolina has done.

"We're starting over with guys that are knowledgeable, that are smart guys, that there's a reason why they've been in the league," Shula said. "They're new, but it's kind of been a positive thing."

Benjamin has received most of the headlines. The 28th pick of the draft has been phenomenal, catching everything thrown in his direction. His 29-yard touchdown catch against Buffalo while stumbling into the end zone showed just how special he is.

He's emerged as a No. 1 receiver that the 5-9 Smith admittedly wasn't anymore.

"He's such a big target, it has to give you more confidence as a quarterback, like a jump shooter with a basket that is twice as big," Shula said.

Dickson, a free agent pickup from Baltimore, also was a big addition. Putting him opposite Greg Olsen, the team's leading receiver in 2013, in a two-tight end set has opened possibilities that Shula didn't have last season.

Defenses will have to commit eight players to the box, which will prevent double-teams on receivers and free up the entire offense.

"It gives you flexibility," Shula said. "It makes you less predictable by personnel groupings. So if all of a sudden you come in with two tight ends, you're not necessarily going to run the ball, you're not necessarily going to be in single-back, you're not necessarily going to have two tight ends on the edge.

"So now the defense can't just say, 'Oh, well, they're just going to play these formations, and out of these formations they're going to run just these plays.'"

But it's not just the new toys that excite Shula. Newton has looked as sharp as ever despite being limited since returning from offseason ankle surgery.

Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil gives the line a stabilizing force. Running backs DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert still offer a solid one-two punch in the backfield. Olsen looks as dependable as ever.

"The core guys," Shula said with a smile.

At the core of Shula's excitement is Newton. The only thing sharper than his timing with receivers has been his leadership. Nobody has been more active in encouraging players who do well and motivating them when they need pushing.

"With all that there's a calmness and confidence," Shula said of the fourth-year quarterback. "He's always had that cool personality on the field. Now there's some added confidence with experience."

Old toys, new toys.

Shula has a lot more to play with now.
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly has been the poster boy for postseason awards during his first two NFL seasons.

He won the league's Defensive Rookie of the Year award in 2012 and the Defensive Player of the Year award last season.

Now he wants a piece of hardware for his ring finger.

And it's not a wedding ring for Carolina's most eligible bachelor outside of quarterback Cam Newton.

Yes, Kuechly mentioned the "S" word.

"The best accolade you can get is the Super Bowl," Kuechly said on Wednesday. "That's what my goal is. I think what everybody in the room wants is for us to win the Super Bowl."

Kuechly gives the Panthers that chance even though most of the country expects them to take a hard fall from last season's 12-4 record. He's led the team in tackles each of the past two seasons with 320, the most in the league, based on press box statistics, since 2012. ranked him 15th among the top 100 players for 2014.

The 2013 Pro Bowl selection has looked better than ever in training camp, fine tuning his skills to become better in pass coverage.

He has by far the hardest hit of camp, smacking running back Tolbert so violently on a goal-line stand during Saturday's scrimmage that it seemingly shook the field at Wofford's Gibbs Stadium.

Because he said earlier in the interview that he hadn't made a tackle since Carolina's 23-10 playoff loss to San Francisco on Jan. 12, Kuechly had to be asked what he called that.

"A collision," he said with a smile.

It was somewhat of a payback for Tolbert running over him in the Pro Bowl, but not paid in full.

"That was me losing a collision," Kuechly said.

Kuechly hates to lose, but he's not typically vocal. So the fact he mentioned the Super Bowl makes you take note.

"You ask Cam, you ask [Tolbert]," Kuechly said of the two other Carolina Pro Bowl players last season. "You ask any of the guys on offense. They don't care about Pro Bowls or any sort of the big awards. They just want to win games."

Panthers Camp Report: Day 6

July, 31, 2014
Jul 31
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of the Carolina Panthers training camp:
  • Cam Newton overthrows a pass off the outreached fingertips of wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery. Newton throws a pass high and wide to tight end Greg Olsen. Newton throws high again. Yes, the franchise quarterback struggled early on this rainy Thursday morning. It had nothing to do with his left ankle, on which he underwent surgery in March. Asked if the weather had anything to do with it, coach Ron Rivera emphatically and sternly said, "No.'' But the struggles were noticeable, enough that the Panthers ran a couple of segments again. "He was perfect," Rivera said of Newton the second time around. "Once he got into his rhythm, he practiced very well down the stretch." Newton was especially impressive on his final two-minute drills -- or 1:30, as the Panthers like to go with -- finishing a drive with a touchdown pass over the middle to Cotchery. Newton also was more active in talking to his wide receivers and tight ends about what they were doing as it related to him.
  • With first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin (bruised left knee) out another day, former Wofford standout Brenton Bersin opened as the first-string slot receiver when the Panthers opened in team drills. Normally, Jason Avant or Cotchery line up there with Benjamin on the field. Bersin's presence shows just how far he has come from an undrafted free agent cut early in 2012 to making the practice squad a year ago. Rivera said Bersin could help the team and he wants to see how he does against the first-team defense. Tavarres King also had a good day of practice. Three straight, according to Rivera, as the Panthers look to rebuild at receiver. Meanwhile, Benjamin's rehab is coming along nicely from his knee injury. There's still no timetable for his return, only that he will be re-evaluated before Friday's practice. He is not expected to miss next week's preseason opener against Buffalo.
  • With left tackle Jordan Gross retired, the Panthers are looking for more leadership out of center Ryan Kalil. Rivera has been impressed with the way the four-time Pro Bowl selection has been more vocal in camp. Kalil admits he doesn't like speaking to groups as much as Gross did, but there's no doubt his leadership up front will be key to how this rebuilt line performs.
  • The Panthers practiced kickoff returns for the first time in camp. Wide receiver Tiquan Underwood and fullback Mike Tolbert were the first pair deep. The speedy Underwood was signed as a free agent wide receiver, but he hasn't done anything particularly noteworthy there. His best way to secure a roster spot might be as a return specialist. Tolbert's primary role on kickoffs is supposed to be as a blocker, but a couple of times, the 2013 Pro Bowl selection lined up as the primary returner. Rivera quickly reminded the player known as "Fat Guy" -- among other things -- that he should return kicks only in "emergency" situations.
  • Outside linebacker Thomas Davis looked like he was searching for a contact early in practice as he and several trainers scoured the field. He actually lost a diamond earring. He stayed afterward looking for it, but no luck. Davis wasn't as much concerned with the earring as he was having to file an insurance claim on it. Maybe it will show up later, as his lost wedding ring once did.
  • The Panthers practice at 9:25 a.m. again on Friday. The forecast is for more rain.