Christian McCaffrey's return for Panthers meaningful, even if final games aren't

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In an era when giving running backs big contracts is often frowned upon, the Carolina Panthers have no regrets about making Christian McCaffrey the highest-paid back in the NFL.

Even after he has missed nine games because of ankle and shoulder injuries.

If anything, not having McCaffrey offers the Panthers a reminder of how valuable he is, as Carolina heads into the bye week with expectations that its star will be available when the team returns for a Dec. 13 game against Denver.

The Panthers have scored 30 or more points three times this season, and two of those times were with McCaffrey in the lineup. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater said that defenses scheme the Panthers differently when McCaffrey is on the field.

With two of the their final four games against high-scoring Green Bay and New Orleans -- teams that rank first and fifth, respectively, in scoring, at 31.7 and 29.6 points per game -- a healthy McCaffrey gives the Panthers (4-8) their best chance to pull off an upset.

“He’s a top-five NFL player,” Panthers coach Matt Rhule said of McCaffrey, who has missed the past three games because of a shoulder injury. “With your best players, you feel great about your chances of winning. ... You add Christian to the mix, he’s a fantastic player, he brings a lot to the table, he creates matchups, he allows you to be creative.”

That shows in the statistics. With McCaffrey, the Panthers are averaging 3.6 more points per game, 5.2 more first downs, 82.4 more yards from scrimmage and 0.9 more touchdowns.

Perhaps more importantly, with McCaffrey, the team's third-down conversion rate is 50%, compared to 37.1% without him. The red zone conversion rate is 80% with him and 51.4% without him.

Those issues have come up frequently after losses such as Sunday’s 28-27 setback against Minnesota. Carolina was held to zero touchdowns on three trips inside the red zone and was 6-of-14 on third down.

It’s a small sample, as Rhule noted. But for a team that built the offense around McCaffrey during training camp and has lost four games by an average of 4.75 points without him, it’s an indication of how much the running back's absence has made an impact this season.

The only flaw in the logic is that the Panthers are 4-5 without McCaffrey and 0-3 with him. But the three losses were to potential playoff teams -- the Raiders, Bucs and Chiefs -- and that has to be considered.

“Against the Bears, we played without Curtis [Samuel], we played without Christian and came up a touchdown short,” Rhule said of the 23-16 home loss. “You’d like to think between the two of those guys, they could have accounted for a couple of points.”

Big contracts

ESPN analyst and former NFL executive Mike Tannenbaum believes the Panthers made the right choice in signing McCaffrey to a four-year, $64 million extension that averages $16 million per year, the most in league history for a back.

“I look at a guy like McCaffrey, he has greatness,” Tannenbaum said. “He has attributes you can’t see. ... I probably would have paid him just because I know what an incredible person and worker he is.

“And I would have held my breath every Sunday.”

Tannenbaum had experience with paying an elite back when he was with the New York Jets. In 1998, he signed restricted free agent Curtis Martin to a six-year, $36 million offer sheet that wound up costing him first- and third-round picks in the draft.

Martin helped the Jets to a 12-4 regular-season record in 1998 and a trip to the AFC Championship Game, with 1,287 yards rushing and 365 yards receiving in 15 games. He had seven straight seasons of 1,000-plus yards rushing for New York.

That worked out.

More recently, that hasn’t been the case. In 2017, Atlanta signed running back Devonta Freeman to a five-year, $41.25 million extension that made him the highest-paid back in the league.

A year later, injuries limited Freeman to two games, and this past offseason, he was released with three years and $21 million left on his contract.

In 2018, Arizona signed David Johnson to a three-year, $39 million extension with $30 million guaranteed. Much like McCaffrey, Johnson was seen as one of the best dual-threats in the league.

A year later, he had only 345 yards rushing and 370 yards receiving. This past offseason, he was traded to Houston in the deal that sent wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the Cardinals.

In 2018, the Rams gave Todd Gurley a four-year, $60 million extension with $45 million guaranteed. He was released this past offseason after two years of battling knee injuries, leaving the team with $20.15 million in dead money.

“It’s really hard because there is nothing factually to say, 'Pay these guys,'” Tannenbaum said. “I mean, there’s a million examples. Devonta Freeman, David Johnson, Gurley, those were massive contracts a few years ago, and all three were gone [before the contract was completed].

“What do you do if you’re the Giants with Saquon Barkley? On the one hand, he can’t leave. On the other hand, how can you pay him?”

McCaffrey is different

Mike Davis has been a solid replacement for McCaffrey, rushing for 504 yards and three touchdowns and catching 52 passes for 329 yards and two touchdowns. The running game has averaged 106.3 yards per game without McCaffrey compared to 106.6 with him.

But the overall productivity of the offense without McCaffrey has been down, and much of that is because of the way teams defend Carolina.

With McCaffrey, opponents typically commit a safety or defensive back to following him because of his threat as a receiver. Linebackers simply aren’t fast enough.

With Davis and others, opponents are comfortable with a linebacker in coverage. That allows defensive coordinators to be more creative with blitz and pressure packages, in addition to keeping a big defender in the box to stop the run.

“It just kind of changes their pressure package and what they can do,” Rhule said.

Bridgewater noticed that the most in the team's 33-31 loss to the Chiefs, when he passed for 310 yards and was sacked only twice as McCaffrey came off of six missed games because of a high ankle sprain.

“Teams are conscious of the versatility he brings to the table,” Bridgewater said of McCaffrey, emphasizing that it's no disrespect to Davis or the other backs. “Teams are just aware of trying to cover Christian with a safety or defensive back and trying to limit those matchups of Christian versus a linebacker.”

Rhule hopes to have McCaffrey back for the final four games to start building momentum for next season. He has no intention of sitting McCaffrey, even if the games are meaningless in terms of the playoffs.

“We’d love for us to move forward with him,” Rhule said. “We’ll see if we have him this last month and use him and play with him and take advantage of everything he brings.”