CHARLOTTE – In a season defined by quarterback woes and a late-season losing streak, there's been one constant the Panthers have counted on to deliver good news.
Running back Christian McCaffrey's stellar performances week in and week out have been one of the few shining moments in an otherwise forgettable season. So, with the Saints heading to town for the season finale on Sunday, it's only right that the biggest storyline for the Panthers revolves around McCaffrey.
If McCaffrey can manage 67 receiving yards against the Saints, he'll become just the third player in NFL history to record 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season, joining NFL legends Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk. And that's not the only record he's chasing.
The record presents an interesting dilemma for the Panthers, who are eliminated from playoff contention. Play McCaffrey and risk injury in a meaningless game, or rest him and leave him a few yards shy of history?
Last year, Carolina was in the same position entering the Week 17 matchup against the Saints, and McCaffrey only played for a single possession – only there wasn't a record at stake. This year, things look different.
"I'm not saying I won't pull him at some point in the game, but we're going to try to win a football game," interim head coach Perry Fewell said. "If we have an opportunity to win a game and the game is close and tight, he'll be in there. He'll be battling. He'll want to be in there. Or he'll be battling me on the sideline."
If Fewell's game plan is any indication, it sounds like McCaffrey will be seeing a lot more action in this year's finale.
"Right now, we're expecting him to play just like any other game, and then potentially as the game goes on, we could take a look at some of those other backs," offensive coordinator Scott Turner explained. "Right now, though, the discussion, everything that goes into it has been Christian's playing, just like he has all season."
But Turner doesn't expect to have to do anything out of the ordinary to help McCaffrey join the 1,000-1,000 club. After all, McCaffrey averages 7.3 receptions per game and 62.2 receiving yards. In Week 12 against the Saints, CMC totaled 9 receptions for 69 yards.
"What'd he have last game? 119?" Turner said, referencing McCaffrey's performance against the Colts. "We'll try to get him the ball any way we can. As you guys have seen, you never know how it's going to come up, but obviously, that's a big accomplishment."
With all the talk of breaking records and joining clubs, though, there's one person who hasn't chimed in: McCaffrey.
"It's one of those things where, obviously, there's a record out there that people are talking about, but at the end of the day, I'm just preparing to try and win a football game," McCaffrey said.
McCaffrey may not like talking about himself or his accomplishments, but that doesn't keep him from recognizing the significance of the club he could join on Sunday – especially for a kid who grew up watching Craig and Faulk.
"I may be too young to have watched him (Craig) play live, but I've seen multiple clips of him, seen a whole bunch of different highlights," McCaffrey said. "When you watch the way he runs, obviously he did a lot in the pass game too, but such a physical runner, a guy that refused to be brought down by the first guy, so I have an unbelievable amount of respect for him."
With Faulk, McCaffrey is able to take things to the next level – using similar plays to elevate his own game.
"Nowadays it's fun, because we can pull up plays that they've ran that we'll have in the game plan," McCaffrey said. "I can see how he (Faulk) did it, where he put his eyes, why he did certain things, so you watch with a little bit more of a specific intent."
McCaffrey knows that when the time comes on Sunday, the sideline will be buzzing as he inches closer and closer to history, but he'll be doing his best to stay focused.
"You just tune it out, go with the flow," McCaffrey said. "Enjoy the ride and whatever happens, happens. The biggest thing is focusing on the preparation before that so when the game comes you don't have to think about anything, you just get in the zone."
View photos from Panthers practice as the team prepares to take on New Orleans in the season finale.