Carolina Panthers

Panthers want to cut down on Christian McCaffrey’s plays, not his touches

Panthers coach Ron Rivera has made it abundantly clear: Carolina doesn’t intend to stop giving Christian McCaffrey a heavy workload — it just wants to manage some of the extra snaps he takes to best protect his health.

“The goal is to cut down on his plays, but we’re not going to take away his touches,” Rivera said after training camp practice Wednesday at Wofford College. “We want the ball in Christian’s hands. When he’s on the field, there’s no reason for him to be a decoy or be a swing guy.

“That’s what coach Norv (Turner) wants to do. He basically said that the other day when he talked to you guys: We don’t want to take away the touches. What we want to do is take away the excess plays that he doesn’t have to be out there.”

When Turner, who is entering his second season as offensive coordinator, spoke to reporters Monday, he said the Panthers will continue to funnel their offense through McCaffrey because he’s so dynamic.

“We need to get someone else on the field, but we’re not going to minimize (Christian’s) carries or touches,” Turner said.

Turner also said he was “concerned” about McCaffrey’s touches, but Wednesday, the running back said Turner had misspoken and echoed his head coach’s thoughts about snaps vs. touches.

Carolina Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey played the most offensive snaps of any running back in the NFL in 2018. Jeff Siner

McCaffrey played 91.3 percent of the team’s offensive snaps in 2018, and that’s factoring in that he only played 10 offensive snaps in Week 17 against the New Orleans Saints. No other running back played even 85 percent of their team’s offensive snaps, and only two — Saquon Barkley (83 percent) and Ezekiel Elliot (82.6 percent) — played more than 80 percent.

McCaffrey also played the most amount of offensive snaps in the league last season with 965. Elliott was second with 890, followed by Barkley with 853 and Todd Gurley with 825. No other running back played even 750 snaps last year.

For reference, the Panthers’ offense averaged about 63 plays per game in 2018, which means McCaffrey played more than a full extra game’s worth of offensive snaps than any other back in the league. But he only had 326 touches last season (for 1,965 total yards), which was third-most in the league.

Not that McCaffrey would ever say he can’t handle that immense workload.

“I prepare so that I can be in the whole game,” McCaffrey said. “I felt great all last year, felt great all offseason, and I feel really good right now.

“The goal for me is be ready to play, be ready to get the ball as many times as possible.”

To cut back on McCaffrey’s snaps, the Panthers must rotate their running backs more than they did in 2018. Doing so serves a number of purposes: it keeps McCaffrey fresher — on a per-game basis and in terms of his career longevity. It also allows the Panthers’ stable of young backups — Cameron Artis-Payne, Jordan Scarlett and Elijah Holyfield — to develop.

“You watch the other three young guys (and Artis-Payne), they’re all guys that have a certain type of skillset,” Rivera said. “We’ve got a good mix of guys that we have to find the answers on them.”

What this does not mean is that the Panthers will only keep McCaffrey in the game on plays where he’s designed to get the ball. But there’s a difference between him being on the field for five plays without touching the ball versus being out there for 35 pays without the ball.

Even handling someone as well-conditioned as McCaffrey is, Carolina’s coaching staff has to be careful how they utilize him.

“He’s really put a lot of emphasis into it of trying to build up the stamina. He constantly tells me, ‘Coach, if we play 1,000 plays, I want to play 1,000 plays,’” Rivera said. “You know him, he does not want to leave the field.

“But for his own well-being as a football player, we have to be smart and be judicious as to when he’s out there.”

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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