One of football’s premier playmakers, you can count on just two hands the number of games Christian McCaffrey has played the last two campaigns. A 2019 All-Pro with a workload, when healthy, unlike any other offensive weapon in the league, his longevity, and more importantly, his career track, must be put into question. “The best ability is availability.” While it’s a cliche statement in regards to the former top-10 pick, he’s been as unreliable a player the last two campaigns for Matt Rhule’s Carolina Panthers.
A versatile talent who ranks among the league’s top primary ball-carriers and as a top pass-catcher flexed out in space, there isn’t a player in today’s game who can do the things he does when in possession of the football in the variety of ways he can do so. On a dive, sweep, toss, reverse, McCaffrey’s explosiveness is second to none on the ground. When asked to run the full route tree when matched up against slower defenders, he presents a mismatch every snap he’s on the football field. For you fantasy gurus out there, you know the story like the back of your hand. A bonafide top-two pick each and every year, he can single-handedly win you a matchup, but, as it’s been for two seasons now, McCaffrey has faded into the shadows.
Look, I get it, injuries are a part of the game, and surely he’ll do everything he can to once again tinker his offseason workout regimen to better prepare for the 2022 season. But with Carolina just 2-7 in their last nine games (after starting 3-0) and offensive coordinator Joe Brady now gone, McCaffrey’s absence has added insult to injury for a franchise that initially looked to be on the precipice of major success.
Similar to the Tennessee Titans’ loss of Derrick Henry this fall, Carolina’s offense is a shell of itself when No. 22 isn’t available to suit up. A magnet of attention from defenses, a primary reason why Rhule’s group started 3-0 was the ability of McCaffrey to shoulder the offensive workload without any hiccups, lifting pressure off of then starting quarterback Sam Darnold. A talent available to work as both a three-down bellcow in the run game and as Carolina’s de facto WR1 at times, McCaffrey’s presence the first three weeks of the season saw him amass gaudy numbers despite departing early in Carolina’s Week 3 win over the Houston Texans.
Initially ruled as a minor hamstring strain, McCaffrey went on to miss the next five games, with Carolina proving victorious in just one of those matchups—a sign of things to come. Weeks 10-12 saw his numbers return to form, where much of his production returned, but it was short-lived, and a Grade 2 ankle sprain suffered in a loss against Miami has placed him on the shelf for the last month of the year.
With 48 consecutive appearances in his first three seasons, the initial longevity shown by the former Stanford standout was a positive sign considering the amount of work he received to kick off his pro tenure. But as we flash forward to today and the months/seasons ahead, it’s difficult to not ask the question: Are the Panthers asking too much of McCaffrey?
A pack mule tasked with carrying the Panthers’ offense since he first stepped foot into Carolina’s facility, at some point, the wear and tear add up. Whether or not he’s able to return to 100% health come next summer and stay available throughout the fall remains to be seen, but for himself, Rhule, and a Panthers organization in desperate need of positives, McCaffrey’s longevity presents the master key to opening the door toward Carolina’s track back to success.