Christian McCaffrey nears return

The Panthers are “hopeful” their top runner will be back by Thursday night

The return of Christian McCaffrey, left, to the Panthers offence would give Carolina a boost for its Thursday night home game against Atlanta. (Mark LoMoglio / AP Photo)

It turns out the Panthers may need the NFL’s best player after all.

Carolina won its first three games after running back Christian McCaffrey went down with a high ankle sprain, but the last two weeks have been tougher going for the team.

Now, with the Panthers facing a short week — the team plays Thursday night against Atlanta — they may have a chance at getting back their biggest playmaker.

McCaffrey appeared at practice early in the week. Although he wasn’t cleared to participate fully, it sparked widespread speculation that he might be able to take the field on Thursday night.

“I think it’s a possibility,” coach Matt Rhule said. “You know, that’s sort of out of my hands. I’m hopeful that we’ll have him.”

Rhule pointed out that McCaffrey would need to be designated for return by the team — a housekeeping transaction with the league that takes him off of injured reserve. That was done on Tuesday afternoon, sparking the flames of speculation that he’d face the Falcons.

“If you know Christian, you know that he wants to play,” Rhule said. “As soon as they release him and say he’s good to go, he’ll go.”

While McCaffrey will undoubtedly be pushing to play — he initially said he was going to try to come back sooner than the four-to-six week estimate — the benefit of keeping him out Thursday is an additional 10 days of rest and recovery before the Panthers play again.

Clearly, the return is imminent, and that is breathing life into the players on Carolina’s offense.

“I’m very excited to see Christian back out there,” quarterback Teddy Bridgewater said. “He’s been working really hard. I know he’s itching to get back out there. Guys were excited watching him.”

In his place, backup running back Mike Davis has performed well, scoring two rushing and four receiving touchdowns. His game against New Orleans was his worst over that span, as he rushed for just 12 yards and was kept out of the end zone for the first time since McCaffrey’s injury.

Rather than going back to the sideline when McCaffrey returns, Davis is expected to remain a key part of the Panthers’ offense.

“Whenever Christian is back, we’ll use both guys,” Rhule said. “Mike has certainly proven he deserves to play. We’ve talked at great length about how to utilize both of those guys on the field.”

Wide receiver Curtis Samuel has also moved into the mix. The versatile Samuel has carried the ball 16 times this year and scored his first rushing touchdown of the season on Sunday in New Orleans.

“Curtis is one of the key guys in this offense,” Bridgewater said. “He does a lot of things that help this offense go. Whenever he’s out there, he’s making plays.”

“He’s a clutch player,” Rhule added. “A tough guy. He finds a way to make huge catches. His ability to control the middle of the field on third down and create mismatches is a big thing. It’s great to have him out there.”

It also gives Rhule and his staff one more piece to move around when McCaffrey is back.

“With Mike, Christian and Curtis Samuel, we have three guys who can play running back and wide receiver in a multitude of personnel groupings that a defense has to prepare for.”

It’s just not clear that the Falcons will have to prepare for it.

This is the first time Rhule will have to play a Thursday night game following a Sunday game, and, even without integrating an injured player back into the game plan, that can be a challenging task.

Rhule, who spent the 2012 season on Tom Coughlin’s staff with the New York Giants, is leaning on his experience to prepare him for the week.

“Just like when we went out to Los Angeles to play the Chargers, I used Coach Coughlin’s West Coast schedule, which is different from a lot of people’s,” Rhule said. “I thought we played well. We’re using the exact Thursday night game schedule from when I was at the Giants. We actually came down and played the Panthers on Thursday night here at Bank of America Stadium.”

The Giants won that game, 36-7 over the Panthers.

“I like the schedule,” Rhule said. “I remember leaving that game saying, ‘This is probably our best game this year.’ So we’ll keep on that normal schedule.”

And, with just four days between games, everyone on the field will be banged up. So it might be the perfect time for the Panthers’ banged-up star running back to return.