Replacing McCaffrey: Panthers look to survive with top running back out

With its best player out 4-6 weeks, Carolina will try inexperienced Mike Davis as its featured back

The Panthers will look to Mike Davis to be their No. 1 running back while Christian McCaffrey is out with an ankle injury. (Jason Behnken / AP Photo)

This just in: Despite the injury to Christian McCaffrey, the Carolina Panthers are going to keep playing games.

The Panthers’ star running back went down late in the Week 2 loss to Tampa Bay that dropped Carolina to 0-2. On Monday, the medical report brought bad news: McCaffrey has a high ankle sprain and will miss four to six weeks.

It’s the last thing the team needed. The Panthers had already seen much of the talent stripped from its roster in the offseason, and McCaffrey was one of the few bright spots left who could be considered the face of the franchise.

Perhaps anticipating the sense of dread and frustration that could accompany the news, McCaffrey began his post-diagnosis comments with a pep talk for teammates and fans who might be listening — fans who, at least in small numbers, will be able to attend the next Panthers home game. Gov. Roy Cooper announced that teams can play to 7% capacity starting Oct. 2, two days before the Panthers host the Cardinals.

“We’re 0-2 with 14 games left in the regular season,” he said. “The last thing I want this team to focus on is the negative. Football, especially in the NFL, can have a lot of factors that play into it that affect your mental, emotional and physical play. We’ve lost two games, not because we’re a bad team. That’s something that can get corrected, injury or not with me. This team has a lot of fight, a lot of resiliency. We have the right guys to pick it up from here. I’m excited about that.”

In other words, McCaffrey wasn’t tanking before and doesn’t want to see the team give up now.

“There’s a lot of noise that can be heard from outside,” he said. “I think it’s crucial not to listen to that stuff. Continue to focus on football and correct the mistakes.”

That means different things for different people with the Panthers organization.

For McCaffrey, it means focusing all of the energy he usually puts into preparing for a game into rehabbing his ankle.

“I don’t believe in coincidences,” he said. “I think everything happens for a reason. Everything is perspective and attitude. You win or you learn. Right now is a learning experience for me. I’m going to stay strong, fight through it. They say 4-6 weeks. That’s a challenge to me. Hopefully, I can get back earlier than that. I’m going to attack this like I attack anything else. Sitting here and feeling sorry — that doesn’t do any good.”

Coach Matt Rhule wasn’t surprised by his star back’s attitude.

“I’m sure he’s rehabbing right now,” Rhule said. “I know he’ll get back as soon as he can.”

While McCaffrey is working hard in the training room, Rhule needs to find a way to get production on offense without McCaffrey, who has been responsible for a quarter of the yards and half the points for Carolina so far this year.

Don’t expect to see any major changes.

“Our offense is built,” he said. “It is what it is.”

In other words, he’ll just plug in the next man — which for the time being is Mike Davis — and stick to the scheme.

“We keep doing what we’re doing,” he said. “It’s the same.”

Davis, by all accounts, is up to the challenge.

“He’s going to do great,” McCaffrey said. “I already know it. He can do everything — run, catch, block. He’s had success not just with our team but in the past with other teams too. He’s been there before. He’s been a successful player in the NFL.”

“We have high expectations for Mike,” quarterback Teddy Bridgewater agreed. “Mike’s a guy who’s done great things for us through training camp.”

While he got a vote of confidence from his teammates, Davis hasn’t had many occasions to prove himself on the field. He’s started just 10 games since entering the league in 2015, never more than six in a year. On Sunday, he had eight catches for 74 yards against the Bucs, which is more than he’s had in three of his previous six NFL seasons.

“Mike Davis is a starting tailback in the NFL,” Rhule said. “He got out there and was ready when his number was called. He’ll play well in Christian’s absence. He’s a big back who runs with power, runs good routes, has good hands and can block. When he went in there, we didn’t change what we did. I’m sure he’ll do the same thing next week.”

And if he doesn’t? Then the high hopes and bright side that McCaffrey is preaching could darken considerably before he’s ready to return.

“It sucks, to be 100% transparent,” McCaffrey said. “Any time you get an injury, it’s a horrible thing. You play football to play, not to sit out.”