Over the last two seasons, Christian McCaffrey’s time on the football field has been limited to say the least. He’s played in only 10/33 eligible games having suffered 4 significant injuries that kept him benched. After a record-breaking 2019 season, he appears to be on the decline but is this the case? Is Christian McCaffrey injury prone, is he still elite, and how can the Panthers help him stay healthy?
When attempting to answer this question, I wanted to look at the conditions surrounding McCaffrey’s four major injuries since 2020 and what might’ve caused them. The two causes that I came up with were over-usage and unfortunate luck. Ever since McCaffrey became the lead back in Carolina, he has been overused and it’s finally come back to bite him.
If one looks at the games where McCaffrey has sustained an injury that would go to keep him out for multiple weeks, in three of them, one could argue that he had been significantly over-worked already. In week 2 of 2020, he was on his 22nd touch when he suffered an ankle sprain vs Tampa Bay. When he suffered a shoulder injury vs Kansas City in week 10 of 2020, he was on his 28th touch, and while on only his ninth touch against Houston on Thursday Night Football in week 3 of 2021, he had entered that game having received a whopping 29 touches in week 2 against New Orleans four days earlier and 30 touches against New York in week 1 eleven days earlier.
Even though Christian McCaffrey is a freak of nature, he’s still only 5’11’’ and about 215lbs. A running back of that size should not be receiving that many touches on a week-to-week basis. The instances above should be the textbook definition of “over-working.” While Christian McCaffrey’s last two seasons have been injury-plagued, it may not be fair to label him injury-prone; rather over-worked.
His final major injury came on an ankle sprain in week 12 of 2021 against Miami. This one was just bad luck. When a 300lb man falls on your ankle at an angle, that’s going to result in an injury for anyone. It should also be noted that McCaffrey finished the first half anyway.
Can Christian McCaffrey stay healthy and be elite? The answer to that question is yes. None of these injuries have required surgery and, in all honesty, have really been that serious. If Matt Rhule and the Panthers coaches can manage his touches responsibly, McCaffrey could definitely play a whole season. This is something the Panthers really need to focus on: limit his touches and use them effectively. Use him in the passing attack more where he is less prone to taking big hits. In 2021, Christian McCaffrey led Carolina in receiving in four of the five games he fully played anyway. He is arguably the second best receiving threat on the team.
Additionally, when running the ball with him, the Panthers must focus on getting him into open space. He shouldn’t be primarily used as a power back up the middle on dives and powers as he has the last two seasons. Give him the ball on stretches and tosses where he is best. When McCaffrey has played, he’s still put up good tape and good numbers. He can certainly still play. Moreover, he can still be an elite weapon for a Panthers’ offense that needs him to be.