News and notes from the final day of the 2021 season

Christian McCaffrey

Players on Monday cleaned out their lockers and met with the media for the final time of the 2021/22 season. Here are some highlights of what they said on their way out for the offseason.

CHARLOTTE — Christian McCaffrey has put everything he has into staying on the field the last two years. It hasn't necessarily worked.

That's why the Panthers running back said he's re-thinking his approach to rehab and offseason work after his latest injury-plagued year.

McCaffrey, who has played just 10 games the last two seasons, said he's learned that when you're injured, "you overthink things." Toward that end, he's considered changing some of his routine, and easing into the offseason a bit.

"If you focus on the 60-meter sprint, it's going to be a long career, and not in a good way," he said Monday. "But if you focus on the marathon, it's going to be a healthy, happy, long career, and that's what I'm focused on, is continuing to learn, continuing to grow, trusting in myself and my own abilities.

"If I've learned anything in terms of techniques, it's been just not overdoing it. I think that's been my issue is overdoing it sometimes. But once again, there's different things I've learned along the way that will help. You can't prevent everything. Football's a tough business, a tough sport. I'll continue to learn and grow."

Asked if he thought he had cost himself time by pushing it too hard in the past, McCaffrey said he trusted what he's been doing, but has heard about other approaches.

"Talking to guys around the league who have had success, is in these first 12 weeks of the offseason, just letting yourself emotionally and mentally and physically relax. Still being active, but relaxing," he said. "I'm a competitor, and I always want to show up ready to go in OTAs, and trained for OTAs, if that makes sense, and tried to show up at full speed ready to roll. And I'll still do that. But it will be more tempered, so to speak — showing up fluid and smooth and ready to go and taking care of yourself.

"I've trained a certain way for a long time. And if you relate what you do in training, to, I had a couple of 300-pound guys fall on my ankle when I was already down. I didn't mean that to happen. I would love to know there's a drill someone's got out there to prevent that from happening. I would do it every day. It's continuing to trust in my abilities and my training and what I do. I've seen guys get hurt; it's part of the business. But I'm content knowing I have the capabilities to continue to have success."

— Neither the Panthers nor Sam Darnold can know at the moment what the future holds.

All we know for sure is that Darnold's the only quarterback under contract at the moment, and that things didn't go quite as planned this year.

After trading three picks for the former Jets quarterback and guaranteeing his $18.9 million option for next season, Darnold played well for a bit, then he didn't, then he got hurt.

When asked what he could do better next year, he talked about specific mechanical fixes including keeping two hands on the ball when he's outside the pocket, and continuing to work on his footwork.

Darnold threw nine touchdowns and 13 interceptions this year, and lost four of his nine fumbles on the season.

But he remains confident that he can do the job.

"One hundred percent," Darnold said. "I'm always going to have that belief in myself that I am a starting quarterback in this league, and that I can win football games.

"It's just alluding to what I said earlier; I think is the biggest thing, is just not turning the ball over. I get that fixed, and I win games in this league."

While Darnold was obviously not helped by the injury that kept Christian McCaffrey off the field for most of the year or the iffy offensive line in front of him, Darnold took the high road when asked if he thought he was given a chance to succeed.

"Yeah, 100 percent, 100 percent. The talent that we have on offense is, I mean, there's nothing else you could ask for as a quarterback," he said. "Obviously, things didn't go our way, toward the latter half of the season, the middle to the end of the season, but yeah. I don't think there was any lack of talent surrounding me at all."

— Cornerback Donte Jackson is recovering well after groin surgery, and said he'd be ready to play well before OTAs begin later in the spring.

He just doesn't know where that will be.

As one of the team's 22 unrestricted free agents, Jackson will be available to the open market on March 16. While he's set for a big payday, he's not ruling out staying put.

"Carolina's home. I love the fans, I love the culture, I love everything about this organization," Jackson said. "I was able to grow here. I was able to not only become a better player, but become a more mature man, a better leader. . . .

"This is home, and anything that we can do to make sure this is home for the next four years or so, that's what we're going to do, but I'm not really going to speak on the details. Carolina is home. Carolina is a place that I want to be, but we shall see."

Of course, the Panthers have a solid stable of young corners in Jaycee Horn and CJ Henderson, but their other offseason needs could force them to choose between the 26-year-old Jackson, and a veteran in Stephon Gilmore, who can play a valuable role in molding the young corners. But Jackson doesn't view it as a binary choice.

"Nah, I don't think of it like that," he said. "I think if the team has a chance to land a guy like that, why not? I don't think it's an either-or thing. I think we'll see when it gets down to that moment. But I don't think we look at it as an either-or thing. I think we look at it as a trying to get the team better thing. I think that's really what it is.

"I don't think of it as any competition or anything. He's like big bro. He's shown me so much since he's arrived here. Yeah, I don't really look at it like that."

— Veteran linebacker Shaq Thompson knows it sounds like he's repeating himself.

But after a frustrating season, he's seen how close he believes the Panthers are to being a quality team.

"It just comes down to we've gotta win the games that we need to win," Thompson said. "We can't keep saying after every game, 'We've gotta do this, do this,' and the next week, the same stuff that we said last game keeps showing up on the following game. That's the biggest issue that we kind of had this year. Offense might play good, defense plays bad. Defense plays good, offense plays bad. Special teams play good, everybody else plays bad.

"In order to win in this league, you've got to have complementary football. That's everything - special teams, offense, and defense. That's just something we can't really do this year. I mean, you see glimpses of it here and there, but that's something that we've got to have to be consistent with."

View photos from the locker room as the Panthers sign jerseys, clean out their lockers and bid farewell for the offseason.

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