Uncertainty in the backfield

Christian McCaffrey

CHARLOTTE — The Panthers saw some evidence of what a full-strength offense might look like Wednesday, even if it wasn't a long glimpse.

With running back Christian McCaffrey on the practice field after being designated to return from injured reserve, and quarterback Sam Darnold on the field while going through the concussion protocol, the Panthers at least had a moment to consider the possibility their starters might be ready for Sunday's game against the Patriots.

Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said McCaffrey was "pretty limited" in what he did after being designated to return from injured reserve.

Because he practiced after his initial injury and it didn't go well, the Panthers are being careful to pace him on his way back. Rhule said that was why they elected to place him on IR, to give him a three-week window to recover.

"Just trying to begin the process of working back," Rhule said of McCaffrey. "We tried to give him some time off; he hasn't practiced in several weeks. So this was his first day back. We'll see how he looks tomorrow, in terms of this weekend and his availability. See how he responds to this. But no setbacks today, which was good for the first step."

The Panthers have eased other players back from injuries lately, with Stephon Gilmore getting an extra week to practice before he made his debut last week. Shaq Thompson was also given extra time before he returned against the Lions.

So when Rhule was asked if it was likely that McCaffrey would be held out against the Patriots with an eye toward the following week against the Cardinals, he replied: "I don't know that."

A week ago, they ran 47 times for 203 yards against the Falcons, with Chuba Hubbard, Ameer Abdullah, and Royce Freeman helping Darnold carry the load.

"Just the first step. We've been through this before," Rhule said. "I think the biggest thing is how he feels after today. He got through the practice. We go back, it was cool today, did he open it up? We check the GPS. It's a process we're getting started.

"It took Steph two weeks to get back, and even then, he was limited. Shaq was able to come back in a week and a half. We'll see how Christian's body responds. We're getting Chuba and Royce and Ameer ready and see what happens."

As for his quarterback, there's a ceiling on what Darnold is able to do. There are steps in the concussion protocol that allow players to do some work in practice, but they have to be cleared by an independent neurologist before playing.

Darnold was on the practice field Wednesday and did some work, but not a lot. Players in the concussion protocol aren't made available to reporters.

"He's extremely limited," Rhule said of Darnold's workload. "Some of the run-through. But nothing more. Pre-practice stuff and drills. Extremely limited."

P.J. Walker

Without Darnold, P.J. Walker took the starter's reps Wednesday, and said he was preparing as if he was going to play. That's the mindset every backup has to take, as a matter of practicality. Last year, Walker started against the Lions with next to no notice, which he said was good experience.

"That helps a lot," Walker said. "I know where to prepare mentally. I know where to go, know what to do, and just mentally going into the week knowing you're going to get the reps and knowing you'll probably be the guy going. For me, it's just go out there and prepare as a starter and prepare as I'm going to play. . . .

"As a backup, you prepare for the unknown every week. You prepare that way every week. You just stay ready and be ready. That's something I'm trying to take pride in, being ready when my number is called, being sharp and doing positive things for the offense."

Walker and Rhule can laugh about it now, but there were some stressful moments last week when Walker came in for Darnold in Atlanta and nearly threw an interception at the goal line.

The Panthers have been working on Walker to make better decisions in that area for some time, and Walker acknowledged that it's an area he has to improve in.

"All this is mental, it's not a physical thing," Walker said. "If I don't see something, either throw it away or run it. Don't just try to make plays. I think I get caught up into trying to do too much. First down, throw the ball away, live to play the next down. I just have to have that first down/check down mentality down in the red zone."

Of course, Rhule has plenty of familiarity with Walker from their days together at Temple, and at one point in his press conference, Rhule referred to him by his given name Phillip. Walker was then asked if there was a difference in what Rhule called him.

"It's P.J. when he's happy, Phillip when he's pissed," Walker said with a laugh. "It's like my mom."

If he plays Sunday, the Panthers can only hope it's a mostly P.J. day.

View photos from Wednesday's practice as the Panthers prepare to take on the Patriots in Week 9.

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