Why Christian McCaffrey will again be Panthers' workhorse -- immediately

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers faced third-and-2 from the Atlanta 32 in the second quarter Thursday night. Running back Mike Davis split wide left and wide receiver Curtis Samuel lined up in the backfield next to quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

At the snap, Samuel faded to his right and caught a quick pass from Bridgewater for 3 yards and the first down.

Coach Matt Rhule pointed to this play as one way the Panthers (3-5) could utilize Davis and Christian McCaffrey in the lineup together when the Pro Bowl running back comes off injured reserve, likely for Sunday’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs (1 p.m. ET, Fox).

He didn’t rule out using Samuel at running back and McCaffrey at wide receiver as well.

“We all know Christian's ability to line up and play receiver," Rhule said. “So I think the door is open to be creative with all those guys."

How often remains to be seen. In the season opener, McCaffrey played 97% of the snaps and got 26 touches. Davis got 3% of the snaps and no touches.

McCaffrey got most of the snaps in Week 2 before suffering the high ankle sprain that landed him on injured reserve for six games.

Davis played well with McCaffrey out, playing 79.5% of the snaps as the Panthers went 3-3, winning three straight and then losing the last three.

Davis’ production dropped dramatically in the three losses. After having 149 yards from scrimmage in a Week 5 win against Atlanta, he’s had only 168 combined yards during the 0-3 skid.

To put that in perspective, McCaffrey averaged 111.5 yards from scrimmage in the first game and three quarters of the second. He averaged 149.5 yards from scrimmage per game in 2019, when he became the third player in NFL history to reach 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season.

He’s been arguably the second-most impactful player to come out of the 2017 draft behind Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who has an MVP award and a Super Bowl ring in two-plus seasons as an NFL starter. The Panthers will try to figure out a way to slow him down in Kansas City.

“I'm not labeling this against Mike or anyone else, but Christian brings elite production," Rhule said when asked what McCaffrey added to the offense versus Davis. “On days when you're not great on third down, he's a tremendous third-down matchup. Explosive runs. He can catch the ball out of the backfield.

“He’s one of the best in the National Football League. Like any great player, you feel better about your chances when he's there than what he's not."

Inside the numbers

Rhule immediately followed this by adding, “We also are going to count on Davis, too."

What he didn’t say again was how much. History -- McCaffrey played on 93.35% of the snaps in 2019 -- indicates the opportunities will be minimal at best.

“There's surely an opportunity," Rhule said of having McCaffrey and Davis on the field at the same time. “Whether we do that or not remains to be seen."

Here’s a closer look, with help from ESPN Stats & Information and NFL Next Gen Stats, at five reasons McCaffrey will continue to dominate the snaps and touches:

Red zone woes: McCaffrey’s last play before being sidelined was a 7-yard touchdown run against Tampa Bay. In the first two games, he had four rushing touchdowns and the Panthers were 4-of-5 (80%) on scoring touchdowns inside the 20. They’ve been 10-of-21 (47.6%) with Davis. He has two rushing touchdowns, and Rhule has pointed to the lack of a running game specifically for the team's red zone struggles.

Third-down success: Carolina’s third-down conversion rate with Davis on the field is 32%, next-to-last in the NFL, just ahead of the winless New York Jets at 28%. That rate was 56% in the seven quarters with McCaffrey. Remember that Rhule called McCaffrey a “tremendous" third-down matchup.

Run-pass balance: With McCaffrey, the Panthers had much better balance with 56% pass, 44% run. With Davis, it was 68% pass and 32% run. In other words, the defense wasn’t kept off balance and was able to go after Bridgewater with more pressure. That duress has contributed greatly to the three straight losses.

Pass-block win rate: The win rate with McCaffrey on the field was 56%, compared to 50% with Davis. The 56% rate is around the league average. The 50% rate ranks 29th in the league. (Note: Pass-block and run-block win rates are ESPN metrics using NFL Next Gen Stats.)

Run-block win rate: There’s not a huge difference here, either, but it doesn’t take much to go from good to average. With McCaffrey, the win rate was 72%, which would rank eighth in the league. With Davis, the win rate was 70%, around the league average.

Keeping Bridgewater upright

Keeping Bridgewater on his feet is one of Rhule’s priorities entering the second half of the season.

Because the Panthers were more balanced with McCaffrey, they were less predictable on obvious passing situations and Bridgewater was under less duress.

“When Teddy Bridgewater is upright, he's playing like one of the best quarterbacks in the National Football League," Rhule said. “When we protect the quarterback, we've been really good. When the quarterback’s been under duress, we haven't been the offense that we want to be in."

As Rhule and players agreed, this is not a criticism of Davis as much as evidence of McCaffrey’s elite value.

“Christian is a special player," center Matt Paradis said.

Chiefs coach Andy Reid didn’t hesitate to say McCaffrey would fit right in with his dynamic offense, which ranks second in the NFL behind Seattle with 31.6 points per game.

“He was a heck of a college player, and he’s sure doing a nice job in the NFL," Reid said. “We’ll have to make sure we know what’s going on with him."