Christian McCaffrey, one of the most productive all-purpose players in college football history, was supposed to come into the NFL and completely shatter the league standard for a rookie’s stat line.
But while he has made a few incredible plays and went over 100 yards receiving against the New Orleans Saints in Week 3 (the first Panthers player of the season to do so), McCaffrey has yet to score a touchdown or turn heads with his numbers (to be fair, the hybrid running back/receiver should have already had his first touchdown, but an easy layup toss was missed badly by a still-rusty quarterback Cam Newton).
Through four games, McCaffrey has carried the ball 31 times for 89 total yards, which amounts to just 2.9 yards per carry. He has been targeted 29 times and caught 22 passes for 209 yards, which is right up there with the numbers Nos. 1 and 2 receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess have accrued.
As a punt returner, McCaffrey also has yet to hit the much-coveted “home run,” something the Panthers have not achieved since Philly Brown took one back against Chicago in 2014.
McCaffrey has been consistent, but not as flashy as many would have expected. And, of course, the Panthers would like production from their No. 8 overall draft pick.
But look a little deeper.
The versatile back’s value to the offense goes far beyond his stat line: Defenders must always account for him on the field.
Perhaps the best example of this came Sunday, when Carolina threw out a play it hadn’t used before against New England. The play resulted in a 28-yard touchdown by veteran scat back Fozzy Whittaker, and was a huge momentum boost in Carolina’s 33-30 victory.
On the play, McCaffrey lined up wide as a receiver. Quarterback Cam Newton put him in motion just before the snap, meaning McCaffrey ran pre-snap to the other side of the field. This prompted cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who was covering McCaffrey wide, to call for help to the other side from free safety Devin McCourty. McCourty responded and started to shift. Seeing no remaining receivers on his side, Gilmore shifted as well.
As McCourty and Gilmore shifted, linebacker Kyle Van Noy prepared to tighten into the line of scrimmage a bit to counter McCaffrey, and to stop the run should Newton switch to a handoff to Whittaker, who was lined up as a running back. Newton flipped his hips toward McCaffrey as the latter called for the ball, and Van Noy keyed in on McCaffrey in preparation of Newton throwing to him and McCaffrey finding the gap set by tackle Daryl Williams.
But Whittaker, nearly unnoticable to that point behind the offensive line, curled out through the space provided by the line and Newton threw a quick little dumpoff screen pass to Whittaker, who carried it untouched into the end zone. Gilmore and McCourty were unable to re-cross the field in time to stop him or push him out of bounds.
After the game, Whittaker said the play was one the team had been installing over the last few weeks before finally bringing it out.
McCaffrey’s value, when combined with Newton’s fake, was that three key defenders (two of whom could have stopped Whittaker), were instead drawn toward McCaffrey. This has been displayed at times each week, though perhaps not more dramatically so than against the Patriots.
I hearkened back to what Panthers coach Ron Rivera said right before a muggy training camp practice began in Spartanburg in August, about the presumed “evolution” of the offense: “There will be times when (offensive changes) will be very subtle, and you have to pay attention. There will be times when it’s very obvious.”
Screen passes are nothing new, but with McCaffrey’s misdirection added as a layer, it seems Carolina got both its subtle offensive change and its overt one at the same time.
I also thought about what veteran tight end Greg Olsen said during training camp, after the team worked on red zone plays with McCaffrey stacked as a receiver.
“I think some of that stuff we did it today in the red zone with (McCaffrey) on the same side ... he’s a guy that is going to attract attention,” he said.
This doesn’t mean McCaffrey will be used only as a decoy. Carolina is confident his production will come.
“Well, I think (Christian) is another really unselfish guy,” offensive coordinator Mike Shula said this week. “He is a very important part of our offense.
“We didn’t bring him here to be a decoy, either. We brought him here to be an important part of what we do, and also a playmaker. He’s been a playmaker, and made some incredible plays in crucial situations already. Now, numbers-wise, have we seen that yet in regard to lots of yards or lots of touchdowns? No. But within that, he’s been very important to our success.”