CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Norv Turner has worked with four of the NFL’s top 10 all-time leading rushers and five of the top 12 as either an offensive coordinator or head coach since entering the league in 1985.
Among those is former Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith, who tops the list at 18,355 yards.
Jonathan Stewart, who ranks 59th with 7,318 yards, has one year left on his contract after signing an extension last offseason. He turns 31 in March.
Stewart’s productivity dropped significantly this past season with the arrival of Christian McCaffrey. Stewart’s 680 yards rushing were his fewest since 2013, when injuries limited him to six games and one start. His 3.4 yards per carry represented a career low. He rushed for six touchdowns, equaling his second most over the past eight seasons, but three came in one game.
That Stewart is set to count $5.25 million against the 2018 salary cap and the Panthers can save $3.75 million by releasing him has raised speculation he could be let go.
It makes sense.
But Stewart said Monday, as players cleaned out their lockers the day after a 31-26 wild-card loss at New Orleans, that “I’m not done yet.” He talked about wanting to get back out on the field “as soon as possible” to get rid of the bittersweet feeling from the season.
As much as Turner has done for quarterbacks during his career, he’s really a running back’s best friend. He’s had a 1,000-yard rusher in 21 of his 31 seasons as a coordinator or head coach. Smith had at least 1,500 yards rushing in each of the three seasons (1991-93) that Turner was the offensive coordinator at Dallas.
LaDainian Tomlinson led the NFL in rushing with 1,474 yards during Turner’s first season as the head coach of the San Diego Chargers in 2007. San Diego finished seventh in the league in rushing with 2,039 yards.
The running game is the foundation of Turner’s system.
“The first thing I thought of when I heard he was being [considered], there was Christian McCaffrey,” said former Washington Redskins running back Brian Mitchell, who played in Turner’s system from 1994 to 1999.
McCaffrey, Carolina’s dynamic back/receiver out of Stanford, should benefit. Turner could use the eighth overall pick of the 2017 draft like he did Darren Sproles at San Diego.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who worked under Turner in San Diego from 2007 to 2010, likened McCaffrey to Sproles and Reggie Bush after the draft.
McCaffrey may be closer to Bush than Sproles in that Sproles never was the featured back. Tomlinson was featured until he wasn’t re-signed following the 2009 season, his ninth in the league.
Stewart is heading into his 11th season.
In all likelihood, McCaffrey would become the featured back in 2018, but he will need a complementary piece. After Stewart there is Cameron Artis-Payne and Fozzy Whittaker, who is more like McCaffrey. Artis-Payne has done little since being selected in the fifth round in 2015.
So after McCaffrey there’s a chance you could see a complete overhaul of the Carolina backfield — through free agency and the draft. Turner will want to build a ground game that likely doesn’t depend on quarterback Cam Newton to carry the load as he did this year.
“Christian better get ready,” Mitchell said. “Because [Turner’s] going to use him a lot.”
Whether Stewart will be around to be used is the big question.