On Saturday, the Carolina Panthers activated superstar running back Christian McCaffrey from the injured reserve list, making him eligible to play Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs. The All-Pro suffered a high-ankle sprain in the team’s Week 2 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on September 20 and has missed the next six games. The team has gone 3-3 in his absence.
Last season, the 24-year old became just the third player in NFL history to rush for over 1,000 yards and have 1,000 receiving yards or more in the same season. McCaffrey finished third in Offensive Player of the Year voting after accounting for 43% of the team’s total offense, the biggest percentage from one single player last year.
“You can tell that he’s just eager to just get back out there,” quarterback Teddy Bridgewater said. “We’ve watched how hard he’s worked; he’s a true grinder. So, I think he just gave y’all something, some eye candy or something.”
The team made it a top priority to get him completely healthy and not rush him back too soon. The Panthers invested heavily in their franchise running back, signing McCaffrey to a four-year, $64 million extension in April, making him the highest-paid running back in the history of the league. Risking further injury by bringing him back early during a transition season would not have been prudent, though the team has been able to keep the ship afloat.
Those responsibilities largely went to Mike Davis, but lately were supplemented by Curtis Samuel splitting time between receiver and running back. The team found things that worked with both and will likely have wrinkles for all three starting Sunday. Davis rushed for 359 yards and two touchdowns and caught 31 passes for 348 yards and four touchdowns since Christian went down, and head coach Matt Rhule spoke to that depth prior to activating McCaffrey earlier this week.
“We have a huge plan for Mike. If Christian can’t go, Mike’s ready to carry the load, if Christian can go, then activating someone doesn’t mean that we have them in a jersey, we could activate someone and then get them in the game and work them out and see how they feel,” Rhule said. “I think there’s a lot of things that still have to happen.”
Working in the Panthers’ favor is that their opponent Sunday, the Chiefs, are the 29th-ranked run defense in the league. If Carolina can exploit that weakness, they can also keep Patrick Mahomes and the explosive KC offense off the field with sustained drives. But can the Panther defense stop the Chiefs once they do get out there, as they are averaging 39 PPG over their last two games.
Mahomes has an incredible 21:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio this season, the best through eight games in NFL history. His counterpart Sunday, Bridgewater, is 20-4 ATS in his career as an underdog. This has a sneaky compelling feel to it, especially now with arguably the best back in football, making his much-anticipated return.