CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Coach Matt Rhule said early Monday morning the goal was to have the Carolina Panthers playing their best football over the final five regular-season games after returning from their bye this week.
That got more difficult later in the day when the team announced running back Christian McCaffrey would miss the rest of the season because of an ankle injury suffered in the second quarter of Sunday’s 33-10 loss at the Miami Dolphins.
Statistics clearly show the Panthers are better with the NFL’s highest-paid running back ($16 million per year) than without him.
The Panthers are 4-3 this season with a healthy McCaffrey, 1-4 without him.
In those five games without McCaffrey, they have averaged 4.3 yards per play, which would rank last in the NFL, per ESPN Stats & Information research. Houston ranks last for the season with an average of 4.5.
With McCaffrey this season? Carolina’s average per play is 5.2 yards.
Perhaps the biggest indicator of how much the Panthers (5-7) will miss McCaffrey is in ESPN’s Total QBR. The average is 43 with him, 27 without, which would rank last in the NFL if that trend continues.
Record-wise, the numbers aren’t quite as skewed for the past two seasons, since Carolina was 0-3 with McCaffrey in 2020. That makes the overall record the past 28 games 6-12 without him, 4-6 with him.
Regardless, Carolina’s chances of making the playoffs were tough enough (3%) before the extent of McCaffrey’s injury was known. They become tougher with this remaining schedule: Atlanta Falcons (5-6), at Buffalo Bills (7-4), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-3), at New Orleans Saints (5-6) and at Buccaneers.
Schematically, things likely will change with rookie Chuba Hubbard and Ameer Abdullah carrying the workload. When McCaffrey is out, the Panthers have run 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs) 70% of the time, compared to 55% when he has played, per ESPN Stats & Info data.
The more spread out the formation, the tougher it will be for an already struggling offensive line to protect the quarterback.
McCaffrey’s absence also will take a toll on the defense. Carolina’s percentage of drives without a first down this season goes from 33% in games he has played to 42% when he hasn’t. More time on the field for the defense typically results in struggles.
Third-down success has fallen as well this season, from 37% with him to 32% without him.
Winning also will be tougher because points will be harder to come by. Over the past two seasons, the Panthers have averaged 21.8 points with McCaffrey, 18.8 without him. Offensive efficiency drops from 50.27 to 41.23.
Fantasy football managers will miss McCaffrey even more. He has averaged 22.5 fantasy points per game in PPR leagues since 2017. Only Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes has a higher average at 23.1.
Here’s a closer look at how each of McCaffrey’s injuries the past two seasons have impacted the Panthers:
Week 2 -- McCaffrey suffered a high ankle sprain and missed the next six games. The Panthers actually won three straight to get to 3-2, then lost three straight. So they were 3-3 without their star back during this stretch and, overall, the point differential wasn’t alarming. They averaged 23.5 points during the 0-2 start and 22 during the next six games.
Week 9 -- McCaffrey suffered a shoulder AC joint sprain in his return against Kansas City, a 33-31 loss. The Panthers went 1-2 while he recovered from that. The offense averaged 23.3 points a game, basically where it was the first two games with McCaffrey, but the defense (with ball control a factor) gave up 31.3 points a game, and that was with a shutout against Detroit.
Week 13 -- McCaffrey suffered a thigh/glute strain while recovering from the shoulder injury and missed the remainder of the season. The Panthers went 1-3. Scoring took a big hit as Carolina averaged 17.5 points during that stretch, with the defense giving up 25.5.
Week 3 -- McCaffrey suffered a Grade 2 hamstring injury during the second quarter of a Week 3 win at the Houston Texans to help the Panthers to a 3-0 record. Carolina proceeded to lose four straight and go 1-4 while McCaffrey was out. The most noticeable difference was in then-starting quarterback Sam Darnold. His Total QBR was 62.0 with McCaffrey, 33.36 without him.
Week 12 -- McCaffrey suffered an ankle sprain in the second quarter of the loss at Miami. To be fair, the Panthers were 1-3 after McCaffrey returned, in large part because Darnold’s confidence was gone before he suffered a shoulder injury that landed him on injured reserve and led to Cam Newton’s return. Newton put up good numbers his first two games back with McCaffrey, throwing for three touchdowns and rushing for two.
Newton was having a decent game in the first quarter Sunday before McCaffrey was injured, but everything fell apart in the second half when McCaffrey played only one snap. He completed only five of 21 pass attempts for 92 yards and finished with a career-low passer rating of 5.8. He had no chemistry with Abdullah, who caught two passes on six targets. Newton will have to gain confidence in that, and offensive coordinator Joe Brady will have to rely more heavily on the run with Hubbard, as he finally did the first time McCaffrey was out.
Stay tuned for what happens, but if the past without McCaffrey is an indicator, it won’t be good.