Carolina Panthers rookie running back Christian McCaffrey has almost scored a regular-season touchdown. Almost.
That he didn’t was no fault of his own. On the play, during Carolina’s 9-3 victory over the Buffalo Bills in Week 2, McCaffrey slipped into the right flat and darted to the pylon. A simple toss from quarterback Cam Newton and he’d be in.
But Newton threw it high, missed McCaffrey, and Carolina settled for a field goal. That was as close as the rookie running back has gotten to the end zone.
Of course he’ll score sooner or later – it’s just a matter of when. It could come on Sunday, against the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.
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“If you’re asking me if it would feel good to score a touchdown,” McCaffrey said Wednesday, “then the answer is yes.”
At Valor High alone, he scored 141 offensive touchdowns as a running back and wide receiver. He added 33 more for the Cardinal. He even has a preseason NFL touchdown to his name, when he dove for the end zone in the second quarter of Carolina’s preseason loss to Tennessee.
But none of those are the same as a regular season score, something the Panthers offense has struggled with this season. In three games, the offense – with all its high-round draft choices and the 2015 NFL MVP leading the way – has mustered just three touchdowns and averaged only 15 points.
“We definitely feel like we’ve got to be putting the ball in the end zone more,” McCaffrey said. “You know, I love (kicker) Graham (Gano) to death, but we’ve got to put six up there. And it’ll come, man. We have a lot of new pieces, we’ve had a lot of injuries and we’ve struggled in areas, but it’s all areas we can fix.”
Those areas are the passing game and the offensive line. Newton missed the offseason after shoulder surgery, and he has been rusty in his return to normal playing time. Center Ryan Kalil, the longtime rock on that offensive line, has missed the past two games with neck issues.
But, McCaffrey said, both of those issues should resolve themselves in the coming weeks.
None of this is to say McCaffrey hasn’t had a successful start to his NFL career. Three games in, he’s the team’s leading receiver in both yards (173) and catches (18). He also has 73 yards rushing.
But the little things have kept him, and the team, out of the end zone, McCaffrey said.
“Football is such an up and down game,” he said. “The best teams are able to keep their poise when things aren’t going well.”
The Patriots defense, surprisingly, represents an opportunity to fix those woes. New England has allowed almost 32 points per game so far this season, including 42 to the Kansas City Chiefs in the season’s first game. The Patriots are ranked 26th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed at 130.3 yards per game.
Even with Carolina’s depleted offensive line, there should be some running lanes available for McCaffrey and Jonathan Stewart.
McCaffrey isn’t dwelling on the idea of that first touchdown, though. He remembers his first Pop Warner score, his first at Valor Christian and his first at Stanford, but he’s willing to be patient.
“You can’t think about it. You’ve just got to let the pieces fall where they lie, and whatever happens happens,” McCaffrey said. “If it’s me, if it’s anybody else, I’ll be happy just to be scoring touchdowns in general.
“But I’d like to score, yeah.”
Christian McCaffrey on NFL protests
Defensive end Julius Peppers was the only Panthers player to stay in the locker room during the national anthem on Sunday, but since then, he and other team leaders met with team owner Jerry Richardson about the ongoing protests in response to President Donald Trump’s comments.
On Wedneday, McCaffrey was asked about his views on the situation.
“If I can spread a message to people, it’s just that there’s a lot of hate going on in the world today, and I think it’s really important that everyone takes a step back, looks themselves in the mirror, and when they wake up just try to be the best person they can be,” McCaffrey said. “I’ve got microphones in front of me, I’d be remiss if I didn’t try to preach that. I’m a religious person and I think the Bible is a great place to start, spreading positivity and being selfless.”