Sports | August 4, 2020 7:59 am

Can Christian McCaffrey Carry the Panthers to Respectability in 2020?

With a new coach and a new QB in town, the star running back will once again be Carolina's bedrock

Can Christian McCaffrey Carry the Panthers to Respectability in 2020?
Demario Davis of the Saints tackles Christian McCaffrey of the Panthers. (Grant Halverson/Getty)
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Over the next six weeks or so, we’ll be preparing for the kickoff of the 2020 NFL season on September 10 by attempting to answer the most important question facing all 32 of the league’s franchises in order of finish from worst to first. Today’s team, the Panthers.

No. 26: Carolina Panthers
2019 Record: 5-11

Points For: 340 – Points Against: 470
Projected 2020 Over/Under Win Total: 5.5

When Cam Newton was lost for the season with a foot injury following Week 2 of the 2019 regular season with the Panthers sitting at 0-2 and about to embark on a two-game roundtrip, it looked as if Carolina’s season was going down the drain. Down Newton, head coach Ron Rivera had no choice but to turn to Kyle Allen, an undrafted free agent the Panthers had picked up in 2018, as his starting quarterback for Carolina’s Week 3 matchup with the Cardinals in Arizona.

But Allen tossed four touchdown passes and the team won its first game of the season in convincing fashion, 38-20. Christian McCaffrey, Carolina’s best player, ran for 153 yards and a touchdown in the victory, and also posted three receptions for another 35 yards. The following week, the Panthers went to Houston and beat the Texans 16-10. The two-game winning streak would eventually swell to four with triumphs over Jacksonville (34-27) and Tampa Bay (37-26). Four Allen starts, four wins.

The Panthers lost in Week 8 in San Francisco following their bye, with Allen tossing three pick, but bounced back in Week 9 against the Titans, capturing a 30-20 victory.

In Week 10, with a record of 5-3, the team headed to Green Bay for a matchup against the Packers at a snowy Lambeau Field hoping for a win that they would not get after McCaffrey was stuffed on the goal line as time expired. Carolina lost by inches — and then didn’t win again for the rest of the season, losing eight games in a row to finish at 5-11. The streak cost Rivera his job.

Former Baylor coach Matt Rhule was hired to take his place, and Allen and Newton have been replaced by quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who filled in brilliantly for New Orleans last season when Drew Brees was out with injury, posting a 5-0 record as the starter for the Saints. Gone too are longtime Panthers Greg Olsen (tight end), Luke Kuechly (linebacker) and Graham Gano (kicker).

There will be many new faces in Carolina this season, but the most important one is familiar to Panthers fans, and it belongs to McCaffrey.

The recipient of a four-year contract extension worth $64 million that tops the running-back pay scale, McCaffrey will be counted on to continue to serve as the team’s lead dog out of the backfield as well as a dangerous threat in the passing game. The 24-year-old was second in offensive touches (926) and first in yards from scrimmage (5,443) last season, and if the Panthers are going to have any shot at respectability in 2020, he will have to duplicate, if not surpass, those numbers.

The good news is that as long as McCaffrey stays healthy, there’s no reason to think he can’t.

In his three NFL seasons, McCaffrey has not missed a game despite touching the football 197, 326 and 403 times, respectively. A true workhorse, McCaffrey has actually been better the more touches he’s received, with his per-game yardage averages as both a rusher and pass-catcher steadily leveling up each season.

McCaffrey, who averages a fantastic 5.9 yards per touch for his career, saw a carry or target on 39.8 percent of the Panthers’ plays last season. While it is certainly possible that Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady could decide to scale back the number of McCaffrey’s touches in a year they don’t project to be very competitive, doing that could lead to more losses and their jobs being on the line.

If they do scale back McCaffrey’s usage, good luck explaining to owner David Tepper what he’s paying for, because it certainly isn’t to watch the star running back cuddle with supermodel girlfriend Olivia Culpo and their puppy. For Rhule to have any shot at having a respectable season during his first year in Carolina, he’s going to need Bridgewater to deliver the goods for the Panthers over a full season the same way he did in a limited fashion for the Saints last year.

But most importantly, he’s going to need to ride McCaffrey like a rented mule, one his owner is paying $64M for.