Expectations were generally low for the Carolina Panthers in 2020. After they finished 2019 with their third losing season in four years, the Panthers embraced a full rebuild by turning over the coaching staff and roster. Now, after beginning the season 0-2 and losing superstar running back Christian McCaffrey to an ankle injury following a 31-17 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the season was trending where many believed it would go.
Fast forward three weeks and suddenly the Panthers are winners of three straight, carry a 3-2 record, and did so without the contributions of McCaffrey, whose timetable to return is around four to six weeks. Head coach Matt Rhule, who is known for turning programs around, has already logged more wins in his first five games in the NFL than he did in his entire first season at either Temple (two) or Baylor (one).
The explanation for the Panthers’ success isn’t as simple as stating Carolina is 0-2 with McCaffrey and 3-0 without him, there are other contributing factors. The defense has played much better, the newly implemented schemes have evolved, and the chemistry between so many new pieces has developed.
McCaffrey is one of the most dynamic offensive weapons in the NFL, but the time without him may end up being a blessing in disguise. In his absence, Mike Davis has been terrific as the replacement. In three starts, Davis has 351 yards from scrimmage and four total touchdowns. After McCaffrey played over 90% of the offensive snaps for Carolina in each of the past two seasons, seeing someone else serve as the primary running back for the Panthers has been odd, but there’s no mistaking Davis has played well. He’s producing as a runner and wide receiver while bringing a physical presence to the backfield. He’s grinding out tough yards, breaking tackles, and giving the Carolina offense an edge. The way he closed out the Atlanta game in Week 5 was proof of that.
Over the last two seasons, McCaffrey is averaging nearly 2,200 yards from scrimmage, has 223 receptions, and scored 32 touchdowns. For his production, Carolina rewarded the former top-10 draft pick with a record-breaking contract extension that pays him an average of $16 million per season that made him the highest-paid running back in NFL history. His salary and history of production places an emphasis on feeding him the football. Of course, Carolina wants output from McCaffrey commensurate with his salary. Joe Brady, at 31 years old and in his first season as an offensive coordinator, likely feels burdened to make sure the offense runs through McCaffrey and he gets his touches.
Richard Sherman certainly makes a strong point on the predictability of the Panthers’ offense with and without McCaffrey. McCaffrey’s presence in the lineup probably changes both Brady and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s approach to the game plan and execution of plays. McCaffrey is the focal point of the offense so prioritizing his opportunities would appear to be at the forefront of the offense.
What I was surprised to learn as I researched the Panthers offense with and without McCaffrey this season is that Davis has actually claimed a larger percentage of the offensive touches and total yardage in his three starts than McCaffrey did in the first two games of the season. Davis has touched the ball on 36% of Carolina’s offensive plays and accounted for 29.6% of the total offensive yardage over the last three games. In the first two games of the season, McCaffrey touched the ball on 35% of the offensive snaps and tallied 27% of the total offensive yardage.
While there is likely a shift in mental approach without McCaffrey, the reality is that Carolina has fed Davis more than McCaffrey. The success of those touches and increased overall production of the entire unit likely serves as evidence to Sherman’s point regarding the predictability of the offense.
What does this all boil down to? Carolina finally has a complementary option to McCaffrey in the backfield. Sustaining the workload McCaffrey has endured over the previous two seasons would be difficult, and now Carolina has found its option to reduce that.
Davis’ emergence should allow McCaffrey to be utilized optimally while taking the stress away from him. While McCaffrey should once again be the feature back once he’s healthy, the two can work together to provide Carolina the output needed from the running back position. It also eases any notion to bring McCaffrey back sooner than he is absolutely ready to return.
The challenge ahead for Brady and the Panthers’ offense is incorporating both backs while making sure the approach remains wide open. Between Davis, McCaffrey, Robby Anderson, D.J. Moore, and Curtis Samuel, there are plenty of talented playmakers on this Panthers’ offense. Brady must continue using them all and remain open in his approach to game-planning and play-calling.
This Panthers’ offense is about more than McCaffrey. That’s not a knock on McCaffrey and it’s a good thing overall for the unit.