Scott Fowler

Final tally for record-setting Christian McCaffrey’s season? Here’s what it should be

Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) finds running room against the Atlanta Falcons during the second half at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC on Sunday, December 23, 2018. The Falcons won 24-10.
Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) finds running room against the Atlanta Falcons during the second half at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC on Sunday, December 23, 2018. The Falcons won 24-10. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

A lot of things have gone wrong for the Carolina Panthers this season, but one thing has gone very right — running back Christian McCaffrey.

Now the Panthers need to protect one of the few blue-chip investments they hold in their portfolio. I’d sit McCaffrey out for Carolina’s meaningless final game at New Orleans Sunday, not because he’s hurt but because he’s healthy and they need him to stay that way for 2019.

I understand the temptation not to do so — McCaffrey is playing at a mountaintop level. After running for 101 yards Sunday in Carolina’s 24-10 loss to Atlanta and catching 12 passes for 77 more, he has set a bushel of records. Among the most significant:

McCaffrey has 106 receptions this season, breaking the NFL record for receptions by a running back (102 for Matt Forte in 2014).

McCaffrey eclipsed the best season his father, Ed, ever had in terms of receptions (Ed had 101 in 2000 — and has three Super Bowl rings).

McCaffrey broke Carolina’s single-season franchise record for most receptions by a Panthers player regardless of position (Steve Smith had 103 in 2005).

McCaffrey became the third player in NFL history to record at least 100 receptions and 1,000 rushing yards in a single season (joining LaDainian Tomlinson and Matt Forte).

“All that other stuff is great,” McCaffrey said, referring to those records, “but there’s nothing like winning. Losing sucks.”

McCaffrey had a career-high 33 touches Sunday, even though for once he didn’t play the entire game. With the outcome decided, McCaffrey sat for the Panthers’ final fourth-quarter drive. It was the first time since Nov. 8 against Pittsburgh that McCaffrey didn’t play 100 percent of Carolina’s offensive snaps.

CLT_PANTHERS_FALCONS_26.JPG
Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, right, stiff arms Atlanta Falcons linebacker Deion Jones, left, on a run during third quarter action at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC on Sunday, December 23, 2018. The Falcons defeated the Panthers 24-10. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

“That’s why you prepare, man,” McCaffrey said. “That’s why you train in the offseason.”

True, and McCaffrey has shown incredible durability this season. But there’s no need to prove that again Sunday. This is much the same as a star player sitting out a college bowl game to protect himself. It’s completely justified.

Let Kyle Allen play quarterback — given Taylor Heinicke’s dangling left arm Sunday, I’d be shocked if he played — and let Cameron Artis-Payne be the lead back for a day.

The game means nothing to Carolina (or to New Orleans, as the Saints have clinched the No. 1 playoff seed in the NFC). The Panthers are out of the playoff race and a loss could actually give them a slightly higher draft pick.

This sort of extreme workload for No. 22, while it can morph into records, isn’t great for McCaffrey’s long-term prognosis. As coach Ron Rivera said after the game of McCaffrey: “We are asking a lot of him. I think going into next season, we will have to take a look at some of the things we can do to help him take a little bit of the load off of him.”

That is another reason why it makes sense to shut McCaffrey down. Instead of his usual 100 percent of the offensive snaps, on Sunday against New Orleans, I’d like to see zero percent.

McCaffrey has been one of the very few bright spots of 2018. Don’t take the chance of letting that one go dark, too.

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also hosted the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named the best podcast of the year in 2018.
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