CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart had just participated in his first practice in nearly a month and his ninth in 49 workouts since the spring when fullback Brad Hoover playfully pounced.
"I just told them we're happy to have you back," Hoover told Stewart while pointing at reporters, "and not eating cake on the sidelines."
Jokes were aplenty in the Panthers locker room Wednesday. Stewart, their No. 2 back, had returned from a left Achilles tendon injury on the same day middle linebacker and defensive leader Jon Beason practiced for the first time since spraining the medial collateral ligament in his left knee Aug. 22.
"It was an opportunity to prove everybody wrong, even the docs," Beason said. "I felt good about it."
Suddenly a dreary, winless preseason had given way to optimism four days before Carolina opens against Philadelphia. Minus safety Chris Harris, who was limited with a leg injury, the Panthers had all their key players practicing together for the first time in a month.
"They both looked really good," coach John Fox said of Beason and Stewart. "They were good to finally have back. That was the plan, and I thought they had a good day's work."
Beason, who was injured in the second preseason game against Miami, said he spent countless hours rehabbing. It included about 10 hours a day hooked up to a new-age stim machine, which helped increase blood flow to the knee and strengthen muscles around it.
"It finds what muscle along the lines of the injury is not firing," Beason said. "Then it forces all the other muscles to work harder so that that muscle has less strain on it."
With Donovan McNabb and a healthy Brian Westbrook coming to Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, the Panthers need Beason. He led Carolina in tackles in each of the past two seasons and was voted to his first Pro Bowl last year.
"When you don't have your leader on the defense, which is your mike linebacker, then you have Diggsy banged up and Thomas Davis banged up, that's the second level of your defense," defensive tackle Damione Lewis said.
"Those guys are your do-alls, they cover you up when you mess up in the run gaps and they also help the secondary with underneath stuff. That's the meat and potatoes on your defense, the linebacking corps."
Lewis said he expected Nick Hayden would start at the other tackle position vacated when Maake Kemoeatu was lost to a season-ending torn Achilles tendon. The other options are Louis Leonard, acquired from Cleveland last week, and Ra'Shon Harris, claimed off waivers Sunday from Pittsburgh.
The offense has fewer concerns with the return of Stewart, who combined with DeAngelo Williams to rush for 2,351 yards last season, the most by teammates in the NFL since 1984.
Stewart said the pain in his Achilles tendon was an offshoot from toe surgery he had before last season. He sat out all offseason workouts, then practiced eight times in training camp before being limited to a stationary bike since mid-August.
Teammates said he looked good in practice Wednesday.
"You've got to get the timing down. That's the main thing," Stewart said. "Today went well with that. I felt like I wasn't really out of the loop on a lot of things. I felt fine, running and everything."
He was part of a locker room where players were attempting to distance themselves from their troublesome eight months since the blowout playoff loss to Arizona. Even defensive Julius Peppers, who tried to force his way out of town at the end of last season, was voted a defensive team captain by his teammates.
"The main thing is we've still got to go out there and play," Hoover said. "But to have everybody ready to roll, especially this week, is nice."