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Christian McCaffrey has become the Panthers’ new Superman

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Cam Newton’s injury revealed something nobody expected.

Kyle Allen is the disingenuous story pushed to the forefront by the Carolina Panthers’ turnaround to 3-2. The backup QB with a 4-0 record is a fun story, especially when couched with the promise of quarterback drama whenever Cam Newton is set to return. But really, the biggest and only reason the Panthers aren’t 0-5 right now is running back Christian McCaffrey, who is on pace for a truly legendary season.

In Week 5, McCaffrey recorded 237 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns in a 34-27 win over the Jaguars, his second game this season with over 200 all-purpose yards. He’s now had three straight games with over 175 total yards.

Newton’s injury provided a necessity for the Panthers to find a new Superman, and McCaffrey answered the call. The NFL’s leading rusher has elevated himself from the rank of “extremely good running back” to historic status thanks to a three-week run that has completely masked a Panthers offense that would have been woeful otherwise.

Since Week 3 in Arizona, McCaffrey has totaled 422 rushing yards and four touchdowns, and has added another 182 yards receiving and receiving score. He’s now on pace to finish the season with 2,770 yards from scrimmage, which would break Chris Johnson’s 10-year-old record of 2,509 yards. McCaffrey is also on pace to break Darren Sproles’ all-purpose yards record. But it isn’t just that McCaffrey is on pace to make history — it’s how easy he looks doing it.

McCaffrey is the Panthers’ offense.

Before this season started nobody would have pinpointed McCaffrey as the engine of the Panthers’ offense. For years Newton has held that mantle, but his injury exposed just how weak the supporting cast really is. The Panthers are 23rd in the league in passing offense, and as it stands only D.J. Moore is on pace to finish the season with over 1,000 receiving yards.

To be fair, it’s not like the Panthers RB has been facing world beaters on defense. The Cardinals, Texans and Jaguars combine for an average run defense of 22nd in the league; however, at this point every team in the NFL should know the Panthers have McCaffrey on offense — and that’s about it.

It’s gotten to the point where the team’s own website is bragging about how McCaffrey is destroying defenses essentially running the same play over, and over, and over again — like the Panthers did against the Jaguars on Sunday.

The Panthers kept it pretty simple against the Jaguars. So simple that offensive coordinator Norv Turner kept calling the same run play again and again.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever in my career heard the same play call so many times,” tight end Greg Olsen said.

The play, a mid-zone run that put Olsen and Curtis Samuel in motion pre-snap set up the longest rushing touchdown in franchise history.

It isn’t just the raw production that’s staggering, either. It’s how much McCaffrey is being used. The Panthers have run 322 plays from scrimmage this season. McCaffrey has touched the ball or been targeted on 145 occasions. That means 45 percent of the entire team’s offense is running directly though him. That number jumps to a staggering 50 PERCENT if we focus on games since Newton went down to injury.

The all-time NFL record for usage like this? Larry Johnson, who was involved in 48 percent of Chiefs’ plays in 2006 — the same year he set the league’s all-time record for carries with 416.

Perhaps the scariest thing about all this is that there are no signs of McCaffrey slowing down. Kyle Allen is far removed from his breakout four-touchdown performance against the Cardinals in Week 3. He’s showing average pocket awareness, an inability to complete deep passes, and seemingly fumbles at the drop of a hat — putting the ball on the ground six times in his three starts. This all points to McCaffrey getting more touches and being used even more.

Perhaps more importantly than the stats and the usage is the fact McCaffrey has made the Panthers fun at a time they would have otherwise been bereft of it. It’s difficult for a running back in the modern NFL to be appointment television, but he’s done just that. When McCaffrey isn’t busting huge runs out of nowhere (he has 76- and 84-yard touchdowns this season), he’s muscling his way through defenders like a man twice his size. Then, if all else fails he does something like this:

Or this:

Or even this:

Panthers fans have become conditioned to the idea of seeing ridiculous solo feats on offense ever since Newton arrived in 2011, and McCaffrey is now stepping up to the challenge. Every year it feels like we have the same MVP arguments. Should it go to the best player in the league or the literal most valuable player to their team? More often than not the award simply defaults to “best quarterback,” but right now nobody is more important to their team than McCaffrey, because without him the Panthers would almost certainly be winless right now.

The weirdest part of all this is I don’t think anyone, even the most ardent Panthers fan, thought McCaffrey had this kind of potential. There was no doubt he was an excellent running back who was critical to Carolina’s offense in his first two seasons, but there was nothing specifically about his game that felt like he was going to dominate to the level he is now. In many ways he was akin to former Panthers back DeAngelo Williams — excellent in his own right, highly important and productive, but never reaching the annals of “best the the NFL,” like McCaffrey is now. From time to time we saw flashes of this potential, but nothing lasting.

Maybe it’s because Newton is absent that he’s getting a chance to shine. Perhaps it’s simply a product of hard work and natural development. Either way, McCaffrey is being noticed now as one of the best players in the NFL and has become the new face of the Panthers.

McCaffrey left the game in the fourth quarter on Sunday, later apologizing for poor hydration leading to cramps which required him to miss some snaps. A player who has literally put an entire team on his back wanted fans to know he was sorry he couldn’t carry the ball five more times. The workhorse attitude is on-brand, hilarious, and weird all at the same time, but also proves one thing:

McCaffrey is the Panthers right now, and their future is completely in his hands.