CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The Carolina Panthers ranked near the bottom of most offensive categories last season. They’re hoping a healthy Christian McCaffrey changes all that.
McCaffrey combined for 2,392 yards from scrimmage and 19 touchdowns during a memorable All-Pro 2019 campaign, but missed 13 games season last season due to ankle and shoulder injuries. He was electric in the three games he did play against the Raiders, Buccaneers and Chiefs, amassing 374 yards along with six touchdowns.
McCaffrey announced back in May that he was “100% healthy and ready to roll,” and it’s clear the Panthers plan to lean on him heavily Sunday when they host the New York Jets in the season opener.
“Christian McCaffrey is ready to be Christian McCaffrey again,” Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady said.
Brady called McCaffrey one of the best players in the NFL, and admitted game planning without him last year was difficult particularly in a year when the team's work in practice was limited because there were no minicamps or OTAs due to COVID-19 restrictions.
McCaffrey also brings an element of surprise in play calling.
Because he excels as a runner, receiver and blocker, defenses can't key on particular personnel and know what plays to focus in on. Last year, the Panthers had to substitute different personnel depending on the play calls, making them much more predictable.
“There were limitations on what you could do without Christian,” Brady said. “I'm not necessarily saying that as an excuse but just the reality of the time we all had with each other. And there are certain elements that Christian can do that not a lot of football players can do.”
Like having a chance to score every time he touches the football, Brady said.
“Christian is guy who you can throw it to two yards behind the line of scrimmage — you know, a great play call, right? — and he can take it 80 yards (for a touchdown),” Brady said. "He has shown that throughout his career.”
Panthers coach Matt Rhule said it's important that the Panthers get McCaffrey involved early in Sunday's game. That won't surprise Jets defensive lineman Quinnen Williams, who said he's a big fan of McCaffrey's game, calling him a special player who is difficult to defend.
“He’s one of the best players at running back, in general," said New York's defensive lineman . "Fast, quick, just everything you see on film. He’s a lightning explosive player. Just the things he did at Stanford, man. ... Everybody knows that he’s one of the best running backs in the NFL, one of the most explosive running backs in the NFL. With that speed he's one of the fastest running backs in the NFL.”
McCaffrey didn't miss a game in his first three seasons with the Panthers, and doesn't like discussing last year's injury-plagued year. He said he didn't change much in his offseason preparation, figuring his past workouts have served him well over the years.
But he does appear more motivated, saying he has developed an even bigger appreciation for the game after sitting out.
"The excitement is real. It has been a long time," McCaffrey said.
McCaffrey saw more snaps than any running back in the league in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, and there will certainly be talk of how much the Panthers should use him this season. Brady said it's important the team is smart with McCaffrey, but added that he won't be limited to a certain number of plays.
McCaffrey is preparing to approach the season as he always has: full speed ahead.
When asked if he's looking forward to getting hit the first time, he said with a laugh, “Hopefully you don’t get hit — that’s the goal."
AP Pro Football Writer Dennis Waszak Jr. contributed.
More AP NFL coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL