CHARLOTTE -- Rookie running back Jonathan Stewart couldn't practice because of his surgically repaired toe, but wouldn't have been able to even if he was well. And even though he's one of the poster boys for the reason why, Panthers quarterback Brett Basanez thinks it's a ridiculous rule.
Rookies are unable to join their NFL teams for all but a three-day minicamp until their college classes graduate. For most, that's no problem. But for players at schools on the quarter system whose classes extend into June, it generally means they miss most if not all of the summer workouts.
Basanez was an exception, since he finished his degree at Northwestern before his senior season started. Same with Stewart's Oregon teammate Geoff Schwartz. But Stewart, who left school after his junior year, would be spinning his wheels regardless because of the agreement between the NFL and NCAA, which hopes to keep athletes in school.
Basanez understands the rule's intent, but thinks it penalizes players at the quarter-system schools, since the rest can work freely.
"I think it puts the player at a disability, but at the same time, it helps people graduate; it gives them a reason to graduate rather than just drop out and say, 'Hey, I'm in the NFL,'" Basanez said. "I think it's a good rule, but there needs to be some way to make it equal from school to school. If guys on quarters aren't out and guys on semesters are, then it's not fair."
The Panthers have had a number of players miss summer school in years past because of the rule, such as UCLA products DeShaun Foster and Ricky Manning Jr., along with Ohio State products Chris Gamble and Drew Carter. Seven other schools fall under the regulation: Stanford, Washington, Oregon, Oregon State, Cincinnati, Northwestern and Ohio.
"It's a rule and everybody understands why," general manager Marty Hurney said. "The No. 1 priority is for these kids to stay in school and work at that. That's why there are rules, because it sets the tone for what you think's important."
The rule shows its Quixotic side when it applies to early entry candidates, such as Gamble and Stewart, who generally left school to prepare for the draft. Gamble was able to overcome to start 16 games his rookie year (only partly because they were so thin at the spot), but Stewart's going to be three weeks behind in learning, and there's a legitimate starting candidate (DeAngelo Williams) ahead of him. That could change what the Panthers are able to do offensively until they can catch Stewart up.
Basanez said the summer school is a huge learning time for any rookie, one that's hard to make up if it's missed.
"I think it's very pivotal that you're here," he said. "That's for anybody. A free agent to try to win a spot, but a first-rounder who they've spent all that money on, he needs to be here too. They're planning on him playing more.
"Let's be honest. A guy who's drafted in the first round, that's his job, that's his livelihood. Chances are, his studies are going to take a back seat to that, regardless if he graduates or not. That's just making them sit around and wait."
• FEELING GOOD: Steve Smith's always been a Muhsin Muhammad loyalist, and said last week he's finally seeing the improvement in the offense they never found during the three years his buddy was gone.
A surgically repaired Jake Delhomme helps, along with all the free agent guards and two first-round picks (Stewart and right tackle Jeff Otah) designed to buoy the running game.
"It's very exciting," Smith said last week. "It'll add a little extra to it as obviously Jake is coming in, feeling good and looking great. It seems like he has a stronger arm and not showing any weakness as far as with that major surgery. With those two acquisitions and obviously some of the big guys on the offensive line, the rookie.
"Offensively, I think we finally made an upgrade compared to the years prior. As those guys had left, we really hadn't replenished. We have finally, and I can honestly see, a big difference."
As to Delhomme's arm strength, Smith said he thinks his quarterback has benefited from the conditioning work that's accompanied his elbow rehab.
But he's not going to get too mushy about it.
"He can't out-throw me," Smith said flatly. "He's never really out-thrown me, so that doesn't change."