There is much ado that the Carolina Panthers will face their strictest test on Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys and unearth just how legitimate their 3-0 start to the season is.
However, perhaps of greater onus is that this will be Carolina’s first game this year without Christian McCaffrey, who’s dealing with a hamstring injury sustained in Thursday’s win over the Houston Texans.
For head coach Matt Rhule and his Panthers, there’s the realization that you can’t replicate the dynamic play and contributions of McCaffrey, but it still must be business as usual in terms of the team’s offensive approach and plan.
Rhule clarified Wednesday that rookie Chuba Hubbard would get the start and the offense would have the same outlook as it did with CMC in the backfield.
“Obviously, you can’t replace the production of Christian McCaffrey,” Rhule said, via ESPN’s David Newton. “But those other players, they’ve been waiting for their opportunity. Who knows what they can do when given an opportunity.
“I don’t think it’s fair, right, to Sam [Darnold] and to the offensive line to go away from what we’ve been doing. We’ve been working on it for a long time.”
McCaffrey was injured early in the Panthers’ win over the Texans and is expected to miss a few weeks, so Hubbard and former Broncos running back Royce Freeman will, in turn, be expected to fill in as best as possible.
Hubbard, a 6-foot, 210-pound fourth-round rookie out of Oklahoma State, offers the potential to carry a significant load in the rushing game and pop some big gains.
Against the Texans, he had 52 yards on 11 carries (4.73 yards per tote) and added three catches for 27 yards.
“I’ve wanted to see him really play with his feet underneath him,” Rhule said of Hubbard. “He’s had a lot of times where he’s slipped and fallen cutting off his inside foot. Once he got into a rhythm this last game you saw that dissipate. You saw him run with power and speed. I want to see him do those things.”
It will be a formidable first start for Hubbard, as the Cowboys are the No. 6 defense against the rush so far. Rhule also gave a nod to Dallas bringing pressure in the pass rush, which will call on Hubbard to help out in protection.
Things will change significantly for the Panthers, who were without McCaffrey for 13 games last season, minus their star running back, but the game plan apparently will not. That’s going to give Hubbard a chance to prove himself, right along with the rest of the team, which has myriad doubters.
“I appreciate it and love it,” Rhule said of the narrative that his team hasn’t yet proven it’s for real yet. “I would much prefer that to people saying we’re good.”
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