Christian McCaffrey doesn't have to rush back for Panthers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers running back Mike Davis checks his phone for messages after every game, as most NFL players do. Usually the messages come from friends and family members, sending congratulations or condolences.

The past three weeks they’ve all been congratulations, and among the first have come from teammate Christian McCaffrey, who is on injured reserve with a high ankle sprain.

“C-Mac will be the first one to send me videos of my best runs, and I hear him in the background cheering for me," Davis said after Sunday’s 23-16 victory at Atlanta. “I don’t think people understand that C-Mac is a team-first guy. He really is."

McCaffrey is eligible to come off IR this week, but don’t look for the Panthers to activate the Pro Bowl running back for at least another week or two. They want to give the right high ankle sprain, suffered during a Week 2 loss to Tampa Bay, more time to heal.

Davis has given coach Matt Rhule the luxury of not feeling much pressure to bring his most high-profile player back before he's 100 percent.

The Panthers have gone 3-0 without McCaffrey and surged into a tie for first place in the NFC South with Tampa Bay at 3-2. Davis has been a big reason why, rushing for 351 yards and a touchdown and catching 22 passes for 132 yards and two touchdowns during that span.

That’s an average of 22.3 touches and 117 total yards a game, including Sunday’s season-high 89 yards rushing on 16 carries and a team-high nine catches for 60 yards and a touchdown.

There’s been no drop-off from McCaffrey, who averaged 24 touches and 109 yards from scrimmage in the first two games.

Davis’ career-high nine receptions against the Falcons gave him 30 on the season, which is tied with Saints running back Alvin Kamara, who plays on Monday night. Davis' 206 receiving yards in five games ranks second among running backs in 2020.

Offensive coordinator Joe Brady is so confident in Davis that he hasn’t changed the playbook since McCaffrey went down.

“It's perceived as a game of superstars, but it's not," Rhule said when asked how Carolina has gone undefeated without McCaffrey.

That’s not a slight on McCaffrey. It’s a compliment to Davis, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and everybody on both sides of the ball.

Left tackle Russell Okung agreed.

“We definitely miss Christian McCaffrey," he said. “That guy is certainly a really special and talented player. But in his absence, Mike Davis has been exceptional."

Davis, 27, might be earning an opportunity to be a starter with another team next season. He’s signed only through this season. The Panthers are committed long term to McCaffrey, who during the offseason signed a four-year deal that made him the NFL’s highest-paid running back at $16 million a year.

But Davis is showing with his physicality and ability as a receiver that he has skills that get even multifaceted McCaffrey excited.

When McCaffrey is ready to return, Davis will adjust and do whatever’s asked of him.

“I don’t know to explain it, but I love being on this team," he said. “So I’m not just playing for myself, I’m playing for a team."