David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer 42d

How Christian McCaffrey 'opens up all of the possibilities' of the Panthers' offense

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold faked the handoff to Christian McCaffrey, then drifted back to give Robby Anderson time to get open deep. New York Jets defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins had his own plan, breaking free up the middle after beating guard Dennis Daley with a spin move.

In stepped McCaffrey, 5-foot-11 and 205 pounds, to take on the 6-foot-2, 305-pound lineman.

His block gave Darnold time to step up and to his left before lofting a strike to Anderson for a 57-yard touchdown that was critical in Sunday’s 19-14 victory.

“That play doesn’t happen [without McCaffrey]," coach Matt Rhule said. “That might have been Christian’s best play of the day."

That’s saying a lot. McCaffrey had 187 total yards -- 98 rushing, 89 receiving -- on 30 touches.

It also explains perfectly why the Panthers struggled in 2020 without McCaffrey, who missed 13 games due to injuries, including eight straight after suffering a high ankle sprain in Week 2.

It’s not so much that McCaffrey is great at one thing. He’s great at everything in a way few other backs are.

Miss that block and Darnold looks not much better than he did the past three seasons with the Jets.

Miss that block and offensive coordinator Joe Brady may not be posting on Twitter: “1-0.’’

Brady spent two seasons (2017-18) with the New Orleans Saints -- who face the Panthers Sunday at Bank of America Stadium (1 p.m. ET, FOX) -- as an offensive assistant under coach Sean Payton, learning how to use a star running back to make things easier on his quarterback.

Now, McCaffrey is to Darnold and Brady what New Orleans running back Alvin Kamara was to Drew Brees and Payton the past few years, and what the Saints hope he will be to resurrecting Jameis Winston’s career.

Carolina tight end Dan Arnold, who was with Brady and Kamara for two seasons in New Orleans, understands the significance of both backs.

He understands why the Panthers struggled without McCaffrey in 2020.

“Knowing how Joe wanted to run the offense, you know what it’s supposed to look like," said Arnold, who spent last season in Arizona. “You could definitely tell there’s not this X-factor guy that's going to come in and really be able to open up all of the stuff we want to do."

As well as running back Mike Davis played last season in McCaffrey’s absence, rushing for 642 yards and catching 59 passes for 373 yards, he didn’t bring the intangibles McCaffrey does.

Sunday’s block is one example.

“We kind of stopped as a tight end group [in film review] and said, ‘This is the kind of player he is,’" Arnold said of McCaffrey. “It’s exciting to be able to play with a guy like that, that will step in front of it no matter what. He wants to win, not only for himself, but everybody else.

“On the flip side, that’s what he demands from everybody else.’’

McCaffrey’s absence showed on the scoreboard last season. The Panthers averaged 27.3 points with him, 20.9 without him.

That's significant for a team that lost eight games by eight points or fewer and five by five points or fewer.

“Even when a play is not designed for Christian, he can affect the game," Rhule said.

Payton said McCaffrey and Kamara are similar in that both belong in what he calls the “versatility room.’’

“He does X, Y and Z, but then he also does this," Payton said.

Again, Arnold understands.

“A guy like Alvin would break a tackle, and then all of a sudden that simple checkdown is turning into 15, 20 yards," he said. “That’s the same thing Christian can do. Christian is going to make that one guy miss in space at a high, high probability.

“It’s just the simple stuff like that that’s going to keep an offense rolling."

Rhule and Brady have called this a completely different offense from 2020, and it’s not simply because of what Darnold brings compared to Teddy Bridgewater. Much of it has to do with all that McCaffrey brings.

Asked how much difference McCaffrey would have made in the close losses last year, center Matt Paradis deadpanned, “How would you answer that question?’’

He laughed, then added, “All I’m saying is Christian is a phenomenal player.’’

Darnold agreed.

“The biggest thing when you have a guy like Christian in this kind of offense, it opens up all of the possibilities," he said.

He’s now got a weapon that since the start of 2017 has 6,004 yards from scrimmage, the third most behind Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott (6,386) and Kamara (6,255) during that stretch.

And that’s in 10 fewer games than Elliott and nine fewer than Kamara due to last season’s injuries.

McCaffrey also has an 80.5% success rate on 210 pass block plays during that time, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Elliott is at 78.4% and Kamara 81.7%.

McCaffrey admittedly gets great satisfaction from blocking. He’s as ready for his next block as he is to get 30 touches a game, which would give him an NFL-record 510 in 17 games.

“Yeah, ready to roll,’’ he said.

Arnold doesn’t believe there are many backs in the league who would have picked up Rankins the way McCaffrey did.

“You just appreciate how much he’s willing to throw it all out on the field for you,’’ Arnold said. “And it inspires you to do the same. ... Christian is definitely a one-of-a-kind guy.’’

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