CHARLOTTE — There are clearly things the Panthers won't be able to do as well this week, without injured running back Christian McCaffrey.
But one thing they clearly won't be doing is freaking out.
Quarterback Sam Darnold, as you might imagine, played it pretty low-key Wednesday when asked about the challenge of playing without his safety net. McCaffrey was leading the league in yards from scrimmage before the injury, and has 364 of the team's 1,171 yards this year.
"Obviously, having Christian out, it's not ideal," Darnold said, in the understatement of the day.
But he went straight into talking about the opportunities for Chuba Hubbard and Royce Freeman, and that was a consistent message from the team.
"I think we're just going to go out and run our offense," Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said. "Obviously you can't replace the production of a Christian McCaffrey, but those other players have been waiting for their opportunity, and who knows what they'll do when given that opportunity.
"So I don't think it's fair or right to Sam and the offensive line to go away from what we've been doing we've been working on it a long time."
If there's an encouraging part of the entire scenario, it's the way Darnold played in the second half last week without McCaffrey. They had been struggling after halftime in the first two games, but Darnold led three long scoring drives (nine, 10, and 12 plays) after the injury, and they were able to move the ball downfield at times too.
The task will be tougher against an aggressive Cowboys defense which has created turnovers this year, but Darnold said getting the ball deep was no more of a priority than before.
"We'll see. Even with Christian in there, we're always looking to take shots when we find opportunities to," he said. "I thought we did a good job of pushing the ball downfield last game, in the second half specifically. So we've got to continue.
"For me personally, I've got to do a good job of making sure if it's there, I throw it and I'm accurate with it, and if it's not, be able to get down to whoever the check-down is or who my second read is."
Rhule said there was no mandate for Darnold to be more careful now, and that as he re-watched previous games, he didn't see a hesitant player in his quarterback.
"We don't tell anyone to be cautious," Rhule said. "We have progressions. . . . Based on what I've seen, there's not one part of me that's worried about Sam being aggressive enough. I think he's pushed the ball downfield.
"The biggest thing with Sam is just play within the system, don't try to do too much, but yeah, that's how I see it."
In addition to being without McCaffrey, Darnold is also adjusting to the Monday trade that sent tight end Dan Arnold to Jacksonville (in a deal for cornerback CJ Henderson). He said he has confidence in rookie Tommy Tremble, but they were intent on spreading the ball anyway. If anything, he said he's spending extra time (between periods in practice and afterward) with wideout Robby Anderson, as they try to get him back to a larger role in the passing game (Anderson has just five catches this year). But Darnold said that in discussions with offensive coordinator Joe Brady and the coaching staff, "they're not asking me to change much at all."
They can't worry about replacing a guy who's impossible to replace. They're just focusing on maximizing what they have.
"What Joe's been able to do this week, what he has to do," Rhule said, "is make sure we're being as aggressive as we can as we're putting together a game plan, and make sure we do the things we do well, while also featuring what our players do well."
View practice photos from Wednesday as the Panthers prepare to face the Cowboys this weekend.