The Day After: Christian McCaffrey challenging himself to return quickly

Christian McCaffrey

CHARLOTTE — Christian McCaffrey was told he'd miss four to six weeks with a high ankle sprain. But he's not accepting that diagnosis as a final proclamation.

"That's a challenge to me, and hopefully I can get back a lot earlier than that," McCaffrey said Monday. "I'm going to attack this just like I attack anything else and go from there."

McCaffrey spoke to the media a day after injuring his ankle during the second half of Carolina's Week 2 loss at Tampa Bay. He was unsure how the injury occurred but believed it happened late in the third quarter.

"I had a lot of adrenaline during the game, and I think I got a couple carries after that," he said. "As soon as the third quarter ended, I got taped, tried to play it off. Played a couple plays and just realized that I wasn't 100 percent."

That means McCaffrey scored his second touchdown of the day a 7-yard sprint to the end zone on fourth-and-2 after the injury.

"I went over to the sideline, and it started getting worse and worse, and I realized it would be inefficient if I continued to play due to the level that I was at," McCaffrey said. "They kind of addressed it and told me to sit out and that I'd be out for the game."

After appearing in every game since the Panthers used their 8th overall pick on him in the 2017 draft, McCaffrey is not accustomed to missing games. He knows it happens in football — he sprained his ankle in high school and missed a game with an undisclosed injury his final season at Stanford — but he works meticulously to keep his body maintained and healthy. That's what makes Sunday's sprain so frustrating.

"It's the nature of the beast, though," McCaffrey said. "Obviously, it's very disappointing at first, and I wish I could be out there. But at the same time, it's up to me to stay positive and to approach it in a way that I'm going to get better."

That feeling will fuel McCaffrey through his rehab. He described the upcoming process as one he'll rush to get back from while being honest with athletic trainers about how he feels on a day-to-day basis. He wants to be on the field but doesn't want to do anything to jeopardize the team or his long-term health.

"It sucks, to be 100 percent transparent," McCaffrey said. "Anytime you get injured, it's a horrible thing. You play football to play, not to sit out."

Head coach Matt Rhule echoed McCaffrey's sentiment about trusting the training staff.

"Christian's a tremendous competitor, he'll want to be out there this week," Rhule said. "But we have to let the medical people do their job and let them say when he's ready to return to play."

One thing McCaffrey wants to maintain through the injury is his leadership. A season-long captain for the first time in 2020, McCaffrey began Monday's virtual press conference with a statement about the team needing to stay the course despite being 0-2.

Christian McCaffrey helped by teammates

"The last thing I want this team to do is focus on the negative," McCaffrey said.

"When you're 0-2, it's not over, and that's very important to understand. When you start hearing the noise, good or bad, it starts to take you off the path. And I think it's very important to stay with what you know in times of adversity."

With McCaffrey out, Mike Davis will take over as the Panthers' starting running back. Rhule called Davis a capable starter who made some great receptions against the Buccaneers.

"He was ready when his number was called, and he'll play well in Christian's absence," Rhule said.

A fourth-round pick of the 49ers in the 2015 draft, Davis is just two seasons removed from totaling 728 scrimmage yards with the Seahawks. 

"He's going to do great, I already know it," McCaffrey said. "He's been a successful player in the NFL, and I don't think anything's going to change."

Still, losing McCaffrey's production is a setback for a young team that's still trying to find its footing. So the hope is that while Monday feels like a downer of a day, both the Panthers and McCaffrey will grow from these next few weeks. 

"I don't believe in coincidences. I think everything happens for a reason, and I think everything is perspective and attitude," McCaffrey said. "When you look at it, you can win, or you learn, and right now is a learning experience for me."

View the best photos from the field and behind-the-scenes in Carolina's Week 2 game at Tampa Bay.

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