Carolina Panthers

How Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey can handle the NFL’s heaviest workload

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His nicks and dark bruises have become commonplace.

After seemingly every Carolina Panthers game, running back Christian McCaffrey has some new gash on his torso or turf burn to display. The worst ones are the deep red, still-fresh wounds that no amount of ice can soothe.

Yet McCaffrey never gripes. Not even a grimace. And as his role in the Panthers’ offense has grown the past three seasons — and his standing as the NFL’s “Iron Man” of running backs, too — that’s exactly the way McCaffrey would prefer it.

The third-year, do-everything back accounted for a career-high 37 touches in Sunday’s win over the Houston Texans, and he racked up 179 scrimmage yards in the process. But that sort of usage isn’t an anomaly. This is the norm for McCaffrey.

“His conditioning is phenomenal. I think he takes great care of his body,” coach Ron Rivera said. “We used him judiciously throughout (training) camp and in the preseason games, knowing he’s a guy that’s going to end up carrying a load.

“I think his load is what it needs to be.”

McCaffrey’s conditioning and physical fitness must be at elite level for the Panthers to use him so often. He finished 2018 playing the highest percentage of offensive snaps by any running back in the NFL (91.3 percent of the Panthers’ offensive plays). No other running back played 90 percent of his team’s snaps, and only two — Saquon Barkley (83 percent) and Ezekiel Elliot (82.6 percent) — played more than 80 percent.

McCaffrey also played more actual snaps (965) than any other back in the league last season. Elliott was second with 890, followed by Barkley with 853 and Todd Gurley with 825. No other back got to 750.

Rivera said during training camp that the team wanted to limit McCaffrey’s snaps without cutting back on his touches.

“We don’t want to take away the touches,” he said at the time. “What we want to do is take away the excess plays that he doesn’t have to be out there.”

But since Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is sidelined indefinitely while recovering from a Lisfranc injury in his left foot, McCaffrey has become even more indispensable for Carolina — if that’s possible.

Through the first four weeks of the 2019 season, he has either led or tied for the lead in running back touches each game. The 37 touches at the Texans were also the most in a game this season by any back.

He has 111 touches in four games — no other player in the NFL has over 100, and second-place Nick Chubb sits way back at 92.

It’s not as if McCaffrey is earning these reps and then getting a play or two off on the sidelines. He’s playing 98.2 percent of the team’s offensive snaps — again, more than any other running back — and has played 100 percent of the Panthers’ offensive snaps in three of four games.

Is that sustainable?

The NFL record for touches in a single game belongs to LaDainian Tomlinson, who had 48 for the San Diego Chargers in 2002. Tomlinson’s workload broke down as 37 rushes and 11 catches, good for over 250 total yards and three touchdowns.

McCaffrey isn’t in that stratosphere yet, but the Panthers are well aware they can’t expect this sort of reliability in the long-term if they overuse him right now.

“I don’t think it’s an issue unless it happens too frequently,” Panthers offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. “He’s got such a great routine in terms of what he does. He’s a young guy. As I said, we can’t have him have that kind of load over a long period of time, but he handled it great.”

Linebacker Luke Kuechly said two plays against Tampa Bay last season stand out to him as far as McCaffrey’s ability to play every down. On the first play, McCaffrey took a handoff from Newton up the middle and down the left sideline for 53 yards. The next snap, he caught a pass in the flat and sprinted eight yards before diving for a touchdown.

“Most guys come out of the game after a long run ... because they just had a long run,” Kuechly joked. “But Christian wants to be in the game, and he works extremely hard during the week and in the offseason to make sure he’s physically ready to go.

“He’s not just in, either. That play he sprinted, and then the next play, sprinted again. And there was no loss of speed. ... I think that’s what’s impressive for him, is he can go go go go go go go. And that’s pretty cool.”

McCaffrey’s usage also raises another question: Don’t the Panthers have anyone who could spell him, even for a play or two?

They have rookie Jordan Scarlett and second-year player Reggie Bonnafon, but neither has necessarily been needed. That would imply he ever needed a break, which both guys joked won’t happen.

“(Christian) can handle that,” Scarlett said.

Added Bonnafon: “Yeah, he’ll tell you that’s what he wants. That’s a lot on him, but that’s why they pay him.”

Asked how McCaffrey is able to stay so durable, Scarlett says, “They think he’s a little kid, like he’s small. That dude is stout. Like, for real. People think he’s just small and short and quick. People think he’s just a shifty back. But really, he’s...”

Here Bonnafon interjects:

“Everything.”

For how effective McCaffrey is, it’s hard to argue that the Panthers should take him out more often. He’s still 23, but has yet to show any physical signs of wearing down or even just getting tired. And with Newton out, his role as the Panthers’ offensive engine only intensifies.

Ideally, McCaffrey’s workload won’t remain this heavy — he’s on pace to play 1,059 snaps this season, nearly 100 more than he did in 2018. Newton will eventually return, and he’ll be able to restore more balance to the Panthers’ offense.

“I know the day’s coming here soon that he gets 18 carries and three catches, and all you guys are gonna ask me why aren’t we using him enough,” Turner said playfully.

For now, though, that’s the standard. And the expectation.

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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