SPARTANBURG — There have been points in training camp in which the Panthers' offense looked impossibly behind.
Part of that is a function of playing against what should be an improved defense, with playmakers in the secondary who have taken their turns picking off passes.
Gradually, however, the scales have begun to balance.
The Panthers' offense has picked up the last two days, and seeing Christian McCaffrey pop a long touchdown run during the morning practice illustrated the progress they've made.
"We know how good we can be," the All-Pro running back said Thursday, matter-of-factly.
McCaffrey is a confident player and an exceptional teammate. He's choosing to see possibilities, where a more skeptical eye would have plenty of questions. So while McCaffrey might have known, it was very much an issue after an offseason of turnover.
Having him back helps, after he missed 13 games in 2020. Otherwise, with bringing in a new quarterback in Sam Darnold, churning the offensive line and continuing to look for answers there, and lacking a known commodity at tight end, the question of how good they could be was a legitimate one. And in recent days, it was reasonable to wonder when the answer might arrive.
But after a second straight day of solid work by the first offense, Panthers head coach Matt Rhule acknowledged the progress, saying he saw "a lot of good football."
"I thought Christian ran the ball well; Sam was excellent," Rhule began, as he ticked off the list of positives from practice. Eventually, he pointed out that when you're practicing against yourself, that has a flip side, pointing out the defense didn't create any turnovers Thursday.
After the early days of camp, that's good news for Darnold and the offense, when the headlines were often about who was intercepting passes (plural). That will likely swing like a pendulum through camp, but it's a welcome change for an offense that is still learning new faces. But not one that surprises McCaffrey.
"I think we can do everything well," he said. "Our O-line is awesome, our quarterback's great, our receivers are special. From there, to have a complete offense, it's not beating ourselves and being consistent. We're going to make big plays, but it's being efficient, no penalties, no miscommunications, those are the things that take you from an all-right team to a great team."
Of course, while he was talking, Darnold and most of the rest of the offense was behind him, remaining on the practice field for a good 15 minutes after practice ended to talk about mistakes that were made.
There was still a group trip to the DBO sign (short for "Don't Beat Ourselves"), and Rhule still saw more penalties than he'd prefer.
But McCaffrey talked about the collective effort of the run game, and how much help he had popping some long runs in a scrimmage-like practice. He singled out receivers DJ Moore and Robbie Anderson for their blocking, and the right side of the line of guard John Miller and tackle Taylor Moton for creating lanes. It was a lot of names, but that's what it
"All these run plays that break, that's a product of the entire offensive line," McCaffrey said. "You go back and look at that play; DJ is blocking 45 yards downfield. That's the stuff that helps you win games. It's not just one guy or two guys; it's 11 guys coming together as one. that's when you know you can play special ball as a team."
The Panthers still have work to do to get to special. But after the way camp started, the last few days are at least a step in the right direction.
View photos from Thursday's training camp practice at Wofford.