Carolina Panthers are in better position to get by without Christian McCaffrey, Jaycee Horn, this season

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – What’s next!

The phrase followed by an exclamation point and not a question mark is at the core of the process Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule used to turn around college programs at Temple and Baylor. That hasn’t changed in his first two NFL seasons.

You’ll sometimes see it on the sleeve of Rhule’s shirt or jacket as a reminder.

“It’s probably the ethos of our program – like you learn from the past but never dwell on the past,’’ Rhule said last season while going through adversity. “It’s just a mindset of we don’t wallow, we don’t worry ... we just attack.’’

You may hear that phrase a lot as the Panthers (3-0) move forward after losing star running back Christian McCaffrey (hamstring) and 2021 first-round pick Jaycee Horn (broken foot) in Thursday night’s 24-9 victory at Houston.

Rhule wants to focus on how to beat the next opponent, the Dallas Cowboys, and not on how losing McCaffrey for a few weeks and Horn possibly for the season will impact that effort.

He’s driven that point across so well that left tackle Cameron Erving, when asked after Thursday’s game if the Panthers can sustain their early success without two of their biggest stars, said: “We’re a football team. We’re not the Carolina Christian McCaffreys.’’

Harsh, but true.

And Rhule reminded Erving after he saw the quote that it drove home what McCaffrey would want.

“Christian doesn’t want it to be just about him, but about everybody else,’’ Rhule said. “He’s the ultimate leader. We’ll miss him on the field, but we’ll certainly miss him off the field.’’

A year ago, the Panthers actually won three straight after losing McCaffrey to a high ankle sprain in Week 2 before collapsing with five straight losses and eight in their final nine.

They weren’t equipped from a talent or depth standpoint to sustain what was next then.

This season, they are.

Here’s why. Or better yet, here’s what’s next:

Chuba Hubbard and Royce Freeman are solid backups.

Former Panthers running back Mike Davis played in McCaffrey’s absence in 2020, topping 1,000 yards from scrimmage for the first time in his career. Hubbard and Freeman offer even more.

Hubbard, despite being a rookie, is a dynamic player who can do many of the same things McCaffrey does as a runner and receiver. He started to get comfortable in that role in the second half Thursday.

Freeman offers experience. He started eight games for Denver in 2018, rushing for 521 yards. The next season, he rushed for 496 yards and had 43 catches for 256 yards.

They’ll also be playing behind a better offensive line than Davis, who signed with the Atlanta Falcons in the offseason.

Quarterback Sam Darnold is off to a career start.

If you weren’t convinced Darnold had exorcised all of his ghosts from the past three years with the New York Jets before Thursday, you should feel better after watching him in the second half. It was arguably his best NFL half in terms of decision-making and playmaking in an adverse situation.

His 1-yard quarterback sneak through the pile for a touchdown with 4:07 remaining spoke volumes, particularly if you remember the grief former Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater took last season for fumbling trying to go over the top with a chance to beat Green Bay. As Rhule said after that game, “that just can’t happen.’’

Darnold finished with two rushing touchdowns Thursday, an NFL first for him. His first score came on a perfectly executed zone read in which he pulled the ball from McCaffrey’s belly and followed tight end Dan Arnold around the right side for the touchdown. Yes, Darnold has a little Cam Newton in him.

Erving was impressed, saying what he learned about his quarterback in the second half was “we got a good one.’’

The Panthers boast the top-ranked defense.

The 2020 Panthers struggled to pressure the quarterback, particularly early in the season. They also gave up a lot of points, 25.1 per game. Three games into this season, they have 14 sacks, tying the 1998 team for the most after three games. They’re giving up only 10 points a game; 26 teams have given up more in only two games.

Sure, they’ve faced two rookie quarterbacks in Zach Wilson (Jets) and Davis Mills (Houston Texans), and New Orleans’ Jameis Winston is a rebuilding work in progress. But this unit, even with the loss of Horn, is solid across the board, and defensive coordinator Phil Snow is proving to be a mastermind. Adding veteran cornerback A.J. Bouye to the mix during the offseason should help lessen the loss of Horn.

If you need more, the Panthers have given up only 573 yards. According to ESPN Stats & Information, that’s the fewest total allowed by any team in a 3-0 start since the 1992 Philadelphia Eagles led by Reggie White.

Panthers face a favorable upcoming schedule.

After a tough game against Dallas (1-1), the Panthers face the Eagles (1-1), Minnesota Vikings (0-2), New York Giants (0-2) and Atlanta Falcons (0-2). So the next five opponents are a combined 2-8. Even if McCaffrey misses a month, which is possible, Carolina has the defense and more than enough weapons on offense to get through that stretch with three or possibly four wins.

That’s possible because the Panthers are a more complete all-around team than a year ago. Rhule couldn’t deny that.

“We’re a better team than last year,’’ he said. “There’s no doubt about that. So I would hope that (we’re better prepared). That’s what we have to do. All our focus is on going 1-0 next week at Dallas and trying to improve.’’