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Yes, Christian McCaffrey is very much back and exactly who the Panthers need him to be

Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, left, fights to gain yardage as New York Jets cornerback Javelin Guidry, right, attempts to make the tackle during fourth quarter action at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC on Sunday, September 12, 2021. The Panthers defeated the Jets 19-14.

Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, left, fights to gain yardage as New York Jets cornerback Javelin Guidry, right, attempts to make the tackle during fourth quarter action at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC on Sunday, September 12, 2021. The Panthers defeated the Jets 19-14.

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How many fantasy football owners sighed in frustration when the Panthers’ star running back fell to the ground in the fourth quarter to seal Sunday’s win?

How many wished that Christian McCaffrey — the running back who rightly had the ball in his hands on the last consequential play of Carolina’s 19-14 win over the New York Jets at Bank of America Stadium just lunged forward for two more yards? To extend the play to 20 yards instead of 18? To give him a clean 100 yards rushing in his 2021 debut?

McCaffrey probably isn’t in that group.

And his team loves him for it.

“I know he had some catches out of the backfield and finally that last run,” Panthers coach Matt Rhule said. “We tell them ‘first down, get down’ but just how unselfish he is, he just gets down right away. He gets the first down, he gets down and we win the game.

“I thought he looked great out there.”

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Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, left and head coach Matt Rhule, right, enjoy the walk to the teamÕs locker room following the teamÕs 19-14 victory over the New York Jets at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC on Sunday, September 12, 2021. Jeff Siner [email protected]

McCaffrey had a more-than-adequate fourth-season debut Sunday. He ran for 98 yards on 21 carries and added nine receptions (on nine targets) for 89 yards receiving. He furnished reliable offense early on when 24-year-old quarterback Sam Darnold was first finding his footing against his old team.

And even when he wasn’t the one taking the ball in the end zone, he was part of the play: When Darnold found Robby Anderson for a 57-yard touchdown pass, McCaffrey provided a key block which subdued a forceful Jets blitz, which bought his young quarterback more time.

That didn’t go unnoticed.

“The deep play to Robby (Anderson), we whiffed up front and Christian McCaffrey blocked the defensive tackle himself,” Rhule said, adding, “That might have been Christian’s best play of the day.”

Said McCaffrey of the play: “We knew that we were going to take a shot there, just important for me to stay in and block. The O-Line, they did a hell of a job all day, so it’s my job if I see color in the A-gap or B-gap, especially on those shot plays, I have to help.

“… So, it’s just good complimentary football and that’s what it’s going to take to keep growing.”

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Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey fights to break through the New York Jets defense on a run during second quarter action at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC on Sunday, September 12, 2021. The Panthers defeated the Jets 19-14. Jeff Siner [email protected]

This isn’t to say it’s surprising. McCaffrey pointed out after the game that being team-first is natural for players who’ve played as long as he has.

But perhaps McCaffrey’s commitment as a “team player” was an important reminder for Panthers fans: After a 2020 season when McCaffrey was out 13 of 16 games — and after a subsequent stretch when the running back didn’t play a 2021 preseason game, being treated as a non-renewable resource who could only take so many hits from so many linebackers — his 2021 debut was pretty much flawless.

Unselfish, too.

“He does a great job in pass protection,” Darnold said. “Obviously, he is very good in other ways, but he is very good in pass (protection) as well. He can do it all. He is always looking to get better every single day, that’s why he is such a good leader for us because you recognize how good of a player he is, but the way he comes in every day you wouldn’t think that.”

But can he still be the guy who’s ready to have 30 touches in all 17 games this year.

“Yep,” McCaffrey said unflinchingly. “Ready to roll.”

Alex Zietlow writes about sports and the ways in which they intersect with life in York, Chester and Lancaster counties for The Herald, where he has been an editor and reporter since August 2019. Zietlow has won six S.C. Press Association awards in his young career, including First Place finishes in Feature Writing and Sports Enterprise Writing. He graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in May 2019 and was a summer sports intern for The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., prior to coming to Rock Hill.

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