(ALLEN PARK, MI) - Despite all efforts to replace him, "little man" is still the big man in the Detroit Lions backfield.
Going into his 8th NFL season, James Stewart is at his career peak. The former Tennessee standout rushed for 1,000 twice in his four seasons as a Lion, despite the fact Detroit had some miserable won-loss records during that period, including last year's pitiful 3-13 mark.
Stewart was signed to a massive five-year $25 million contract by the Lions after the sudden retirement of hall-of-famer in waiting Barry Sanders and a season of no run game at all featuring then Plan-B free agent signee Greg Hill and Sanders' understudy Ron Rivers.
In his first season as a Lion, Stewart did something he never did in Jacksonville, he eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark, rushing for his career high 1,184 and 10 touchdowns on a 9-7 Lions squad that failed to make the playoffs, thanks to a poor effort in their final home game of the season, losing by a field goal to the Chicago Bears.
That brought in the Matt Millen era with former Lions coach Marty Mornhinweg and the first of several attempts to replace Stewart. In his first year under Mornhinweg, Stewart suffered through an injury-plagued season and totaled just 685 yards rushing.
Mornhinweg left Stewart exposed to the expansion draft that stocked the new Houston Texans franchise, but Stewart went unclaimed.
The "get rid of Stewart" talk continued that off-season. There was even talk the Lions might outright release the veteran on June 1 of that year.
However, the two sides agreed on a restructured deal that would pay Stewart a total of six million for the 2002 and 2003 seasons and keep intact the 2004 season as the final one of his deal. It saved Detroit nearly $4 million against the cap and assured Stewart that he would be in Detroit for at least two more seasons.
Last year, with a rookie quarterback feeling his way through the NFL, Mornhinweg discovered Stewart wasn't such a bad back after all.
Despite getting the ball only 231 times, lowest among all 1,000-yard rushers, Stewart again broke the 1,000-yard barrier (1,021). With Mornhinweg gone after compiling a record of just five wins in two seasons, Stewart is feeling a little more appreciated by new coach Steve Mariucci and the feeling is mutual.
"He's one of those veteran players that has been around long enough, played for a couple different teams," said Mariucci. "He's becoming a little bit involved in our player programs, which is important to the younger guys."
"He's turning into a real fine leader on this football team. We've got a handful of those guys that I'm going to lean on to help me coach this team. Certainly the leaders on the team are going to help do that, and he's one of them."
"It wasn't this way the first three years when I was here," Stewart said in noting the difference between the ways the different Lions administrations have handled him.
"That's different coaching staffs. Bobby [Ross] let his other coaches coach and you just learned from your position guy. You really didn't have to deal with anything else. That wasn't bad for me. I liked (former running backs coach) Frank Falks and all those guys like Sylvester Croom. I liked those guys. But this is just different. [Mariucci's] whole demeanor; the way he carries this team, it's different from anything I've been around before."
Stewart doesn't feel threatened by the challenges to his job because competition is always been a part of the business. "I know we're all competing for jobs, but we're also competing to be a unit, a team that can go out and compete together and win together."
It's that kind of team-first attitude that coaches love and speaks of the quiet confidence that Stewart has in his own ability. So with all due respects to Artose Pinner, Luke Staley, Shawn Bryson and the rest, look for James Stewart to be starting in the Lions backfield this season.
Stewart still Lions main man in backfield
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Scout NFL Network08/24/2016