CHARLOTTE — The Panthers are still very much a work in progress on offense, which is why they plan to play their starters about a half Friday night against the Steelers.
Except for that one guy, of course.
Mainly, because he's Christian McCaffrey.
"He'll be very, very limited as he's been pretty much every preseason," Rhule said Monday. "He's going to take a lot of hits during the season, more than anyone else out there on the field. So we'll save those hits for the season for Christian."
Of course, the Panthers found out last year what life without McCaffrey was like (not great), after he missed 13 games with an assortment of injuries.
Prior to that, he was both durable and a high-volume back, not missing a game in three years, and touching the ball 403 times in 2019 (for 2,392 yards from scrimmage).
And while he was doing that, his ability to make people miss was on full display, and he said Monday that's the best way to think of self-preservation.
"Yeah, I think just make people miss and not get tackled. That's probably the best way you can limit hits," he said when asked about his preseason workload. "But nah, it's part of football. I think it's the best position on the field. The whole thing, and you've always got to stay physically prepared, mentally prepared, and emotionally prepared, and if you kind of check those boxes every day, and fall in love with your routine throughout the week and make it consistent, just be proactive with it."
Toward that end, McCaffrey came out Saturday night for pregame warm-ups dressed to play, in full uniform. But the time the game started, he traded in his helmet for a baseball cap, but when he came out in the second half, he looked like a camp counselor at the YMCA, wearing gym shorts and a jersey and a bucket hat (he was missing the Chacos to complete the look, sadly).
But there was never any intention to play him, and it would be a surprise if he did more than warm up Friday against the Steelers, even though Rhule said he wanted to see the rest of the starters get "a good half" of work.
"I think any time you're going to play in a game, you approach it like you're going to play the whole game," McCaffrey said. "That's where my head's at, is preparing to get ready to go play a football game."
His body, on the other hand, is in bubble wrap until things get real. It should be noted that the Panthers offense didn't really start pushing back against the Colts in joint practices until McCaffrey took a shot some felt was over the line, since everyone realizes how important he is to the process.
He said he likes a little contact, but knows where the line is. His teammates do too, and linebacker Jermaine Carter said they're aware that keeping McCaffrey available is a priority when they're on the practice field, because McCaffrey's showing the same kind of burst this preseason he's become known for.
"It's not real tough to tag off on Christian (instead of more physical contact) because of who he is," Carter said. "You try to protect your guys, but at the same time, you have to be competitive at all times.
"I feel like he's hungry and he's ready to go. He's the same guy; he's explosive, he doesn't look like he's lost a step. I can't wait to see what he does this year."
Neither can his coaches, which is why they're willing to wait for it.
NOTES: Monday's practice was in shorts and shells, but it was the hottest of the preseason so far, with the "feels like" temperature in the high 90s as the Panthers were wrapping up. They'll be in full pads Tuesday.
They took advantage of cooler temperatures in the morning in Spartanburg, but as they move to something more closely resembling regular-season mode, they're going to practice later in the day. That way they can meet beforehand, and make sure they have a grasp on all their material. . . .
Second-year safety Kenny Robinson avoided a serious knee injury Saturday night. Rhule said he'd likely miss just a week or two, which is relatively good news after cornerback Troy Pride Jr. was lost for the season with a torn ACL in the first game in Indianapolis. . . .
A few players were held out Monday, including veteran outside linebacker Haason Reddick, who was a little sore after last weekend's game. Tight end Tommy Tremble was excused for a personal reason. . . .
View photos from Monday's practice as the Panthers returned to Charlotte and the Atrium Health practice fields.