Panthers offense knows one guy can't replace Christian McCaffrey

Chuba Hubbard

CHARLOTTE — There are few players in the NFL capable of doing what Christian McCaffrey does.

So when it comes to replacing him for a few weeks, the Panthers aren't going to try to ask one guy to do it.

With McCaffrey set to miss some time with a hamstring strain suffered in Thursday's win over the Texans, the Panthers are going to spread the workload around — which is all they can do, really.

The good news last week was that quarterback Sam Darnold responded in the second half of that game, leading three long scoring drives (nine plays, 10, and 12) to keep the Texans at bay.

But the Panthers also got just enough running game from their backups and unexpected sources to keep things rolling.

Chuba Hubbard and Royce Freeman combined for 14 carries for 66 yards in the second half, filling in capably as the Panthers were beginning to process what being without McCaffrey meant.

"Losing Christian is hard," Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said. "I think we saw signs of Chuba in the second half. Once he knew this is my chance, you saw him and Royce make some plays, and I think you saw Sam put some stuff on his shoulders. I would expect our guys to come out, that's just what it is. That's the way this league goes."

The Panthers have some experience being without McCaffrey after he missed 13 games last year, but they expect this year to go better, since they have a broader base of talent than in 2020.

"We're a better team than last year; there's no doubt about that," Rhule said. "So I hope that we would do that. And that's what we have to do. We have to go play without Christian for right now. We'll play this next game, and somebody else will get banged up.

"Our only focus will be on going 1-0 next week against Dallas, and trying to improve. There's a lot of things we can improve on. We have to."

Hubbard will be at the top of the list of guys who will need to carry a heavier load in the offense.

The fourth-round pick showed some flashes in the preseason when McCaffrey wasn't playing in games by choice, and would have likely gotten more chances early if he was more polished in terms of pass protection. That kind of all-around game is one of McCaffrey's defining traits, and Hubbard knows he has to be better in the coming weeks.

"To be a running back, you have to be able to do everything — pass protect, catch the ball and run the ball," Hubbard said after the Texans game. "That's been a point of emphasis for me over the last year, and I feel like I've progressed, definitely."

He was encouraged by their play in the second half against the Texans, particularly the 91-yard touchdown drive to start the half on a positive note.

"We were just moving the ball really well, starting to get into a rhythm," Hubbard said. "I felt like the O-line, tight ends, receivers, obviously Sam all did a really good job. We were just all clicking, doing our job."

He mentioned tight ends specifically, as rookie tight end Tommy Tremble had a particular hand in it. Tremble scored to cap that drive on a little jet sweep run, an unconventional call for an unconventional player.

The third-rounder from Notre Dame came in with a reputation as a blocker (partly because he's good at blocking, but partly because Notre Dame didn't throw it to him often). But the Panthers saw a versatile player who could contribute in many ways, particularly on special teams as he settled into an NFL offense with lots of other skill-position talent. Running the ball might not be at the top of that list, but it worked in the moment.

"When we were talking about the draft, he was like this year's Jeremy Chinn, a guy who we thought could do a lot of different things," Rhule said. "I tell you, after the draft, we got more phone calls from other team's tight ends coaches and special teams coordinators to our guys about Tommy."

And while Rhule noted that they thought Tremble would eventually become "a tremendous pass-catcher," there are still things he needs to improve on (because that's true for everyone, every week).

"He's doing everything he can to get good," Rhule said of Tremble. "He's also got things to work on. Gave up a sack, got knocked back in play action, knocked back into the quarterback. So that was key for me, we wanted to see how he responded. ...

"We need Tommy to continue to develop because he has a lot of talent. But a lot of it is who he is, his intelligence and toughness."

Whether it's Tremble rounding out his game, Hubbard and Freeman taking charge of the run game, or getting wide receiver Robbie Anderson more involved (he has just five catches in the first three games), the Panthers know it's going to take many hands to replace McCaffrey.

Hubbard knows as the guy who will replace him in the lineup, much of that focus will be on him. But he said the way people responded to him immediately after McCaffrey's injury pointed to the collective nature of the job — it's going to take all of them.

"Just pretty much do my job," he said of the words he got from teammates and coaches. "We harp that every week. You do your job, everyone else does their job, and everything takes care of itself. That's really it, everyone saying stay calm and do your thing."

View the best photos from Carolina's 24-9 win over Houston in Week 3.

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