CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Christian McCaffrey had been the lone bright spot on the league’s 32nd ranked offense through six games this season, accounting for 39.8% of the Carolina Panthers’ yards from scrimmage.
So when the Panthers traded the 2019 All-Pro running back to the San Francisco 49ers on Thursday night, the only logical expectation was the Panthers would go from bad to worse, right?
Only that didn’t happen Sunday.
The Panthers ran for a season-high 173 yards behind D’Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard and the 13 1/2-point underdogs rolled past Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 21-3.
Offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo took the handcuffs off quarterback P.J. Walker, who was limited to 60 yards passing in a 24-10 loss to the Los Angeles Rams last week, and he threw finished with 177 yards and two touchdowns on some impressive downfield throws.
Foreman had just 12 carries and Hubbard six coming into the game.
“I think we all believe that if we can get the running game going it will open up a lot for the passing game,” said Foreman, who ran for 118 yards on 15 carries. “And P.J. Walker played a great game, and I feel like we helped him just being able to run the ball and have him all balanced. You know we were not one dimensional today. We were able to do pretty much what we wanted to do."
Panthers guard Austin Corbett said after losing McCaffrey, the offensive line put it on themselves to step up.
“Yeah, no doubt, especially because (the trade) happened a little later in the week,” Corbett said.
McCaffrey was a popular and respected player in the locker room because of his work ethic, and the departure of No. 22 could have easily gutted the team and sent it into a freefall.
Many fans thought the team was tanking it for the No. 1 pick in next year's NFL draft.
Instead, McCaffrey's departure seemed to galvanize the Panthers (2-5), who are now just one game behind the Bucs and Falcons in the NFC South and the only team without a divisional loss at 2-0.
Interim coach Steve Wilks made an impassioned plea to players at the team hotel on Saturday night, urging them to keep pressing forward, promising that better things are around the corner.
“I told guys we have to go out there with a leap of faith and believe in one another and that once we do that, we will really take off,” Wilks said. “That was the emphasis and guys really bought into that.”
The running game is what ultimately broke the Bucs.
While Carolina's defense was busy stymying seven-time Super Bowl champion Brady, the Panthers leaned on the Bucs at the line of scrimmage in the second half. The dam broke on Foreman's 60-yard burst off the right side, setting up a Hubbard's 17-yard TD run for a 14-0 lead. Walker added a TD pass to Tommy Tremble in the fourth quarter to put the game away.
“These men in this room have too much character and our team didn’t even fathom something like that,” Wilks said in regards to tanking.
McCaffrey's impact with the Panthers can't be understated.
He racked up 7,272 yards from scrimmage — 3,980 rushing and 3,292 receiving — in 65 games played and scored 50 touchdowns after arriving as the eighth overall draft pick in 2017.
After being traded, McCaffrey told Wilks he wanted to speak with his former teammates to wish them well and thank them. But because he had to catch an early morning flight to the Bay Area and get to practice, that never happened. McCaffrey talked to several players individually.
“All the ups and downs we’ve been through, all the negative talk, man we’ve just come in here and keeping fighting, keep working hard, just keep believing,” Foreman said. “We’ve still got positives in the season and if we focus on those positives we can have a positive outcome.”
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