The Carolina Panthers enter Week 6 riding a three-game win streak after snapping a losing streak that dated back all the way to last November. What’s noteworthy about the Panthers’ turnaround this season is that they have found success without star running back Christian McCaffrey. The former No. 8 overall pick suffered an ankle injury during the Panthers’ Week 2 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and it was an issue that was going to knock him out for several weeks. While many were ready to give up on the 0-2 Panthers, in stepped another running back that ended up spearheading several victories.

Mike Davis was claimed off of waivers by the Panthers after being released by the Chicago Bears 11 months ago. He didn’t get much playing time last year, but has morphed into a monster in 2020. Since being inserted into the starting lineup three weeks ago, Davis has rushed 45 times for a total of 219 yards (over 4.8 yards per carry) and one touchdown. He also has taken over for McCaffrey in the receiving game, as he has caught 22 passes for 132 yards and two more touchdowns.

In a weird twist of fate, Davis gets a chance to start against the team that cut him this Sunday, and Chicago’s defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano even recently called him a “damn beast,” according to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune. So, how has Davis suddenly turned into a legitimate starting running back? Is it because of Carolina’s system or is it because of his talent? Former Panthers star running back Jonathan Stewart claims it’s a little bit of both.

Stewart caught up with CBS Sports while promoting Crown Royal’s “Water Break” effort. Stewart and Crown Royal are working together on a private tailgate this weekend for not only Panthers fans, but also to recognize citizens who have made an impact on their community in Charlotte. Stewart still makes sure to catch all of the Panthers’ games, and he spoke to us about why Davis has been a big factor in the Panthers’ recent success with McCaffrey sidelined.

“His versatility,” Stewart said. “A lot of guys in the league right now don’t have his versatility. To be able to be a compliment to Christian McCaffrey in a lot of similar ways he’s being used in the offense is pretty great because it gives the Carolina Panthers the ability to not hesitate or stop using the position the way they’re used to using it or want to use it. The offensive coordinator can still call the plays that he’s been wanting to call before the season started because you have a running back that can deliver. He’s a great target out of the backfield because he can get yards after contact. His ability to run angry and break tackles is exciting.” 

Stewart has a point, as Davis’ aggression is starting to show up on the stat sheet. According to Panthers statistician Will Bryan, Davis leads the NFL in broken tackles this season. The South Carolina product has recorded 21 broken tackles, despite not playing in one of five total games. 

With the recent success Davis has found, some have begun to wonder if extending McCaffrey was the right decision. Back in April, the Panthers reset the running back market by signing McCaffrey to a four-year deal worth $16 million per season. Many are against extending running backs due to their average shelf life and how deep with talent the position is. Even the Jacksonville Jaguars ditched former No. 4 overall pick Leonard Fournette for undrafted free agent James Robinson and found instant success. McCaffrey is a star, yes, but has Davis proven that the Panthers would be fine without him? Stewart had a message for those pedaling that narrative. 

“Well I think a lot of people … I’m gonna tell it how it is,” Steward laughed. “A lot of people don’t know what they’re talking about. Everything is a trend at the end of the day, one person says one thing and everyone thinks that’s a great idea and they are going to ingrain that in their mind. At the end of the day, Christian McCaffrey is a once-in-a-lifetime talent — a once-in-a-lifetime player, and you know that. Don’t second-guess it. He’s hurt, so yeah, he’s not on the field. Your frustrations are coming out sideways. Let me remind you that he’s a once-in-a-lifetime talent that plays for your team.

“Once Christian’s healthy and he’s back running … people are going to have to put their sock in their mouth.”

Even Davis chimed in on Twitter earlier this week to tell everyone to get the idea out of their heads that McCaffrey is expendable.

The Panthers have a tough test ahead of them this week, as the Bears boast the No. 9 defense in the league when it comes to yards allowed per game (344). Their potential was on full display last week against the Buccaneers, as Chicago pressured Tom Brady all game and got to him a total of three times in the Bears’ 20-19 victory. The Panthers lost to the Buccaneers 31-17 in Week 2 when McCaffrey was injured, so what does Stewart think Carolina has to do against Chicago this week?

“Protect the quarterback and open up lanes,” said Stewart. “The defensive line — if you can’t contain them — it’s going to be a long day.”

Davis will play an important role for the Panthers this weekend in establishing tempo and also serving as a check-down option for Teddy Bridgewater when he gets pressured. Carolina is on a roll as of late, and Stewart says that Panthers Nation just needs to sit back and enjoy the kind of production they are getting from McCaffrey’s running mate while he’s out. 

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