Christian McCaffrey of the Carolina Panthers has established himself as a high-level NFL player, but injuries have prevented him from becoming even more influential in his career. Reflecting on his professional journey before the 2021 NFL season, McCaffrey knows his outlook on football has changed in at least one meaningful and profound way. 

“It feels really good,” McCaffrey told Panthers reporter Darin Gantt. “Just putting the helmet on again and being with my teammates, doing what I love to do, it’s something I’ll never take for granted again. I’m super happy to be back.

“It’s just fun. It’s fun to be back on the field playing football. I’m thankful that we can be back here and get together in a semi-normal capacity and play the game we love… It happens. Injuries happen. It’s part of the game. I’m really focused on this year and extremely excited about what this team can do this year.”

The landscape for McCaffrey, as he comes back from his latest set of injuries, is noticeably different in Charlotte. Out is Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback — he has relocated to Denver to contribute to the Broncos and be a veteran presence Drew Lock can learn from. In is Sam Darnold, who hopes the Panthers will give him the tools to succeed as an NFL signal-caller. Darnold never received those tools with the New York Jets under the disastrous tenure of ex-coach Adam Gase.

Robert Saleh came to the Jets as a first-year head coach. He chose a fresh start with Zach Wilson — taken at No. 2 in the NFL draft — over Darnold, who found a new home with the Panthers. McCaffrey and Darnold both played in the Pac-12 in the 2016 college football season, but they did not play against each other. When Darnold's USC Trojans met McCaffrey's Stanford Cardinal, USC coach Clay Helton had not yet switched to Darnold from opening-day starter Max Browne. That move didn't happen for another few weeks. Stanford beat a listless USC team, 27-10.

Darnold and McCaffrey have surely swapped some stories from their Pac-12 days. Now they need to build chemistry on the field with the Panthers, who have undergone a considerable makeover in the second year of head coach Matt Rhule's tenure. Rhule clearly thinks offensive coordinator Joe Brady can get the most out of Darnold. Using McCaffrey well will play a central role in maximizing Darnold's skills.

Darnold, McCaffrey, and the rest of the Panthers play Darnold's former team, the Jets, in Week 1 of the coming NFL season. McCaffrey won't take that game — or any other game — for granted.