Scott Fowler: Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady has to lower 1 stat for Christian McCaffrey

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New Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady has a lot of not-so-good problems to deal with in 2020: An iffy offensive line, a new quarterback and a team that enters the year on an eight-game losing streak are among them.

But Brady also boasts a great problem to have. It is now his job to figure out how to best use Christian McCaffrey without overusing him.

McCaffrey is one of the NFL’s most dazzling players, and he seemed to get the ball every play for the Panthers in 2019. He had a staggering 403 touches — a figure that adds his rushes (287) to his receptions (116). That was the most in the NFL.

McCaffrey’s production was staggering, too, which is why he got the ball so much on a team that lost starting quarterback Cam Newton for all but two games. The Panthers (5-11) stumbled constantly. McCaffrey, time and again, propped them up, at least for a few more minutes.

Brady can’t overdo it like that, though. McCaffrey is a rare jewel, one that everybody wants to show off. But even jewels break if they get hit with a hammer too often.

The touches have to go down this season for a player who now is playing under the richest running-back contract in the NFL, as the Panthers have bucked the trend of trying not to spend a lot of money at a position that some GMs think is interchangeable. McCaffrey’s $64-million contract extension, signed in April, wedded the running back and the Panthers through the 2025 season.

Fantasy football players won’t like it. But this is reality, and it’s the only way to go for McCaffrey’s long-term health.

When asked Thursday about McCaffrey’s touches in a Zoom conference call with local media, it was apparent Brady had been thinking about it.

“Look, I think Christian had 429 touches this past year,” Brady started — and isn’t it interesting that Brady mis-remembered an already high number as even higher?

“That’s a lot, obviously,” Brady continued. “But if there’s one person that can take it — one person that takes care of his body — that’s Christian McCaffrey. I can’t sit here and tell you guys the number (of touches) is 400 (in 2020); the number is 350. Every single game will be different. A lot of it will come down to the rest of the personnel on our team.”

McCaffrey’s 403 touches in 2019 led the NFL, but that number was only tied for 41st all-time. Many teams have shifted away from using one primary running back, instead employing two- or even three-back systems.

But Norv Turner, the Panthers’ former offensive coordinator until he was swept out in the regime change, was a big proponent of riding your best horse for as long as you could. Turner did the same thing with LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego and Emmitt Smith in Dallas, helping both to Pro Football Hall of Fame careers.

McCaffrey is only 24, but his trajectory so far also looks to have a hall-of-fame orbit. That only happens, though, if he stays healthy.

I’m sure Brady, just 30 years old himself, gets the idea in theory that McCaffrey should be used less. McCaffrey isn’t going to complain one way or the other — he is almost Zen-like in his “control only what you can control and don’t worry about the rest” football approach. As McCaffrey is fond of saying: “You can’t count the touches. You’ve got to make the touches count.”

But Brady will also be under some pressure this season as the wunderkind serves as an NFL offensive coordinator for the first time. If it doesn’t work out well, there will be whispers that Brady flew too far, too fast. If it works out splendidly, Brady might be an NFL head coach by the time he’s 35.

So while it makes sense in a vacuum to get McCaffrey off the field more often and to get Reggie Bonnafon or Mike Davis on it, are you really going to not throw No. 22 the ball on third-and-8 or hand it to him on fourth-and-1? Your career is at stake after all, and he also gives you the best chance of winning whatever game you’re in.

It’s a big year for McCaffrey, too. I expect he will become a team captain this season. He will want to justify the contract as best he can, he loves to touch the ball as much as he can and, most of all, he’s sick of losing.

Since the Panthers drafted McCaffrey in 2017, he’s been a star, but Carolina hasn’t won a single playoff game and only made the postseason once in those three years. He doesn’t want to have a career in Charlotte like Kemba Walker did with the Hornets — wowing everyone, never winning in the postseason and finally leaving for somewhere else.

I’d like to see McCaffrey in the neighborhood of 320 touches this season — 20 per game, rather than the 25.2 he averaged in 2019. This isn’t going to be the Panthers’ breakthrough season, anyway. If that comes, it’s going to come in 2021 at the earliest. McCaffrey is the team’s best player. He’s healthy. The Panthers need to do their best at keeping him that way.


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