The injured dynamic of Christian McCaffrey and the Panthers

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The Carolina Panthers didn’t care to learn from history when they paid a running back. So they were deservingly condemned to repeat it . . . right?

Well, maybe not in the way you may be thinking.

Look, you’re probably pretty ticked off as you’re reading this, especially if you’re a fan of the team. Your pain and frustration is understandable, and felt. (Yeah, we read your replies to our injury updates on the daily.)

Since making Christian McCaffrey the highest-paid running back in league history last year, the Panthers have hardly seen him on the field. They haven’t gotten close to a return on the four-year, $64 million investment that’ll kick in in 2022, as he’s now dealt with injuries to his ankle, shoulder, glute and, most recently, his hamstring over the last 13 months.

That latest strain, after keeping him out of their last two losses in this 2021 campaign, will officially sideline him for three more weeks. Carolina announced on Saturday afternoon (in an “We’re just going to slip this in there” fashion) that McCaffrey is headed for a stint on injured reserve.

When that’s through, the once-omnipresent workhorse will have missed at least 18 of Carolina’s last 24 games. The man who always had to be accounted for by opposing defenses cannot, unfortunately, be counted on by his own team right now.

But it’s not the history behind the NFL, one which has proven the modest shelf life of running backs, that the Panthers have chosen to bypass. It’s more so their own history that’s come back to haunt them.

The last time the franchise had a star this bright, they had quarterback Cam Newton. Like McCaffrey, but to an even greater degree, Carolina couldn’t help but repeatedly go to the prosperous well Newton built with his unparalleled talent, rare athleticism, physical attributes and overall versatility.

His well, however, ran dry far too quickly.

The previous regime’s over-reliance on Newton and his body, mixed in with a gross negligence for his health and the support around him, drastically shortened what should have been a longer relationship.

In addition to averaging 7.5 carries per game over his nine-year career there (at the ferocity he ran with), the team’s braintrust allowed their MVP quarterback to play through an injured right shoulder. Multiple times.

While there is something to be said about driving a Corvette like Newton when you have one, it’s not fair to keep putting miles on that car when you’re not giving it the proper maintenance. McCaffrey has seen a similar type of dependence.

To the credit of head coach Matt Rhule, who has taken a more thoughtful approach to recovery, that dependance hadn’t started with him. Over the past four seasons, McCaffrey has played in at least 97 percent of the offense’s snaps in 20 games. 19 of those 20 came under Ron Rivera.

He has, however, seen a monstrous workload since Rivera’s departure. In the five full games he’s played under Rhule, McCaffrey has averaged a gaudy 27 touches per contest. Even with a distinct focus on self-care coming into his fifth pro season, McCaffrey (or any other human being) likely couldn’t have sustained such high levels of activity.

From a broader perspective, you can’t blame the Panthers organization for putting their eggs into the McCaffrey basket. He’s a truly special player, perhaps an outlier at the position, that can greatly affect the game like no other running back can.

Let’s not pretend like his marketability had nothing to do with that extension either. Having an exciting (and good looking, if we’re being honest) player onboard to help pacify a fanbase through the beginning of a rebuild is a nice lifeline to take advantage of.

While you could point to his usage, there’s simply not always a guilty party waiting to be blamed on the other side of an undesirable outcome or unfortunate event. Things happen.

For the Panthers and McCaffrey, those things have happened just a little too often.

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