Panthers’ McCaffrey asks hall of famer Marshall Faulk for advice to prolong career

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Christian McCaffrey sounded the siren before Game 2 of the Carolina Hurricanes’ current playoff series Friday night, and his enthusiastic effort gave rise to a thousand variations of the exact same joke on social media.

“Don’t let him do that — he’s going to tear his rotator cuff!”

That one came up a lot, as did fake headlines like: “Breaking news: McCaffrey tears labrum at hockey game, will miss 2022 season!”

That’s what happens when you’re McCaffrey and you miss 23 of the past 33 games after signing a contract to become the NFL’s highest-paid running back. For the past two seasons, McCaffrey’s body has been a real-life version of the poor guy from the old board game “Operation,” who always was having to get some work done when he probably just wanted to be left alone.

McCaffrey, who played in 48 of a possible 48 games in the three years before signing his monster deal in April 2020, is doing his best to return to that form. The former No. 8 draft pick of the 2017 NFL draft has spoken about “attacking my rehab” constantly over the past two years, and if you know McCaffrey, you know that’s true.

This year he added a reportorial flair to his workouts by talking to other former NFL players about what they did to stay healthy during their careers. Foremost among those was Marshall Faulk, the versatile Hall of Fame running back for St. Louis and Indianapolis whom McCaffrey is compared to more than any other player.

Faulk was a remarkable combination of running back and receiver and torched the Panthers plenty of times from 1994-2005. He was also much more durable than McCaffrey has been. Over a 12-year NFL career, Faulk played in 91.7% of his teams’ regular-season games. (McCaffrey has played in 63.7% overall, and only 30.3% over the past two years due to four separate injuries).

“I’m really appreciative for Marshall Faulk, who gave me some great advice,” McCaffrey said Tuesday during a media availability after an offseason Panthers’ practice. “I’ll keep (what Faulk said) between me and him … But just listening to what he had to say and the different things that he did in the offseason at different points … The challenge is kind of going away from some of the stuff you’ve done, and trusting that. But that’s also the beauty of it. And if there’s some things you can tack on a few more years (to the end of McCaffrey’s career) and prevent some stuff, then I’m all in.”

Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey walks to the team’s locker room following a 33-10 loss to the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. on Sunday, November 28, 2021. McCaffrey missed more than half the game after re-injuring his ankle and didn’t return for the rest of the season.
Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey walks to the team’s locker room following a 33-10 loss to the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. on Sunday, November 28, 2021. McCaffrey missed more than half the game after re-injuring his ankle and didn’t return for the rest of the season.

McCaffrey is aware of Faulk’s statistics, noting that Faulk had great years in seasons 6-8 of his NFL career. Not coincidentally, McCaffrey, who’s still only 25, is about to hit the same stretch of his NFL career.

Of Faulk, McCaffrey said: “He’s a guy who had success, but had success for a long time. He’s just somebody that I’ve always looked up to. And he’s always been great to me. So I figured I’d reach out to him on some of that stuff. And you know, I think years 6, 7 and 8 were really good years for him. And that’s kind of why I picked his brain.”

In his five seasons, McCaffrey has had one year — 2019 — in which he surpassed 2,000 total yards rushing and receiving. It was an extraordinary season, and the one most responsible for getting him that four-year, $64-million contract extension that now-departed general manager Marty Hurney handed to him.

Here’s one reason why Faulk would be such a good role model for McCaffrey, though. Faulk had four 2,000-yard seasons, and they all came in a row during years 5-8 of his career. One was in Indianapolis, and the next three came during his time as one of the stars of the St. Louis Rams’ “Greatest Show on Turf.”

Getting McCaffrey to 2,000 yards may or may not ever happen again for the Panthers. He’s certainly capable of it, but head coach Matt Rhule has largely just seen the injury-prone side of McCaffrey.

To Rhule’s misfortune, McCaffrey has missed 70 percent of the games he’s coached for Carolina entirely and come out of the game early in a couple more. It’s understandable that Rhule and new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo will likely never give McCaffrey the 403 touches he got in 2019. It’s just not sustainable.

Rhule, in fact, as much as admitted Tuesday that McCaffrey will be held out of the entire preseason once again in 2022, which seems like a smart move.

Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule (right) said Tuesday he will likely hold Christian McCaffrey (left) out for all three of the 2022 preseason games, which is what he did last year as well.
Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule (right) said Tuesday he will likely hold Christian McCaffrey (left) out for all three of the 2022 preseason games, which is what he did last year as well.

“I think, you know, he’s had enough hits on his body,” Rhule said of McCaffrey. The Panthers also are readying Chuba Hubbard and new power back D’Onta Foreman to sub in for McCaffrey at running back — among other things, this will allow McCaffrey to line up as a slot receiver more often this year.

“I think Christian is a chess piece that not many teams have,” Rhule said.

He’s also a chess piece that the Panthers have let be known was on the trading block before the draft, according to sources. The Panthers wanted at least a first-round draft pick for McCaffrey, though, and likely a top-20 overall pick for him, so discussions never went far. McCaffrey, one of the best players in the NFL in 2019, is now perceived by too many teams as damaged goods.

In many ways, McCaffrey leads a charmed life.

But what he really wants is a season in which he can play 15-17 games, show his worth and lead the Panthers to a winning season. All of that is possible, but No. 22 has to stay on the field. There’s little doubt he will until Sept. 11, when the Panthers open the regular season at home against Cleveland.

After that, though? Everyone wonders. McCaffrey is still plenty young enough to have a Hall of Fame career like Faulk did.

But, as always, the biggest question for McCaffrey boils down to four words:

Can he stay healthy?

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