The Carolina Panthers will be without their star running back Christian McCaffrey for “a few weeks,” a league source confirmed Friday.
McCaffrey had an MRI done a day after he strained his hamstring in the second quarter of the Panthers’ 24-9 win over the Houston Texans Thursday night. NFL Network’s Ian Rappaport was the first to report the news. The sense after the game was that McCaffrey did not tear his hamstring, and the injury wasn’t as severe as it could have been.
The Panthers have not decided whether they will put him on the injured reserve list, which would keep him out for a minimum of three weeks. That decision could come soon.
Panthers coach Matt Rhule said Friday that McCaffrey is still undergoing tests and did not know how many weeks he’d be out.
Rhule added that rookie cornerback Jaycee Horn broke three bones in his foot Thursday and is deciding the best course of action with his family.
“I can’t tell you if it’s season-ending or not,” Rhule said of Horn. “I think we’ll have to just go through the process and see where he is with his rehab.”
Safety Juston Burris suffered a groin injury and could also be out for some time.
The loss of McCaffrey, Horn and Burris — all three starters — are a big blow to the Panthers, especially McCaffrey. Before their Week 3 game, McCaffrey accounted for 41% of the Panthers’ total offense. And even when he isn’t getting the ball, he takes pressure off other players because they have to account for him.
“He’s someone who you can align anywhere, and I think the greatest way to see how great a player is by how a defense has to game plan for them,” quarterback Sam Darnold said Thursday night. “When Christian is out there you can see when he starts to line up in different ways that defenses have certain checks for him when he’s out there. That’s a sign of a really good player.”
Without McCaffrey, the Panthers will have to get creative.
Rookie running back Chuba Hubbard and backup Royce Freeman will have to step up. The two combined for 69 yards rushing and 35 yards receiving Thursday.
Hubbard, who the Panthers drafted in the fourth round of the 2021 NFL draft, especially played well. He averaged 4.7 yards per carry.
“I think we saw signs of Chuba in the second half, once he knew, ‘hey, here’s my chance,’” Rhule said. “I think we saw him and Royce make some place. We saw Sam put some stuff on his shoulders.”
This isn’t the first time the Panthers have had to deal with injuries to McCaffrey. In fact, the Panthers have played more games without McCaffrey over the past two years (13), than they’ve played with him (six).
McCaffrey missed 13 games in 2020 with various injuries, including a high ankle sprain, an AC joint injury and a quad injury he suffered while rehabbing on his own.
In Week 2 against the Saints, he left the game briefly after dealing with cramps. Rhule said he didn’t believe the cramps and McCaffrey’s hamstring injury was connected, but wouldn’t rule out the possibility that playing on a short week from Sunday to Thursday could have been a factor.
But Rhule said this team is better equipped than it was last year to handle McCaffrey’s loss.
“We’re a better team, there’s no doubt about that,” Rhule said.
As for Horn’s replacement, the Panthers have veteran cornerback A.J. Bouye, who missed the first two games while he served a suspension, and was a healthy scratch in Week 3.
“I think the biggest thing is we’re trying to play complimentary football,” Rhule said. “We’re trying to run the ball, we’re trying to pass the ball, we’re trying to throw it to everyone we can, we’re trying to play defense, we’re trying to play special teams. And so, I’ve wanted to be — just as the head coach — team that can function on all cylinders.”