It’s hard to find a way around it.
Christian McCaffrey, Carolina’s rookie running back/receiver, has had an impressive first season with the Panthers. That first season also comes with a “but...”.
McCaffrey set the Panthers’ franchise record for rookie receptions when he hit 75 a week ago (he finished the regular season with 80), and ranks second on the team in receiving yards with 651. He became a dependable set of hands for quarterback Cam Newton as the latter needed a quick-release option while he continued to get his surgically-repaired shoulder back to full health throughout the first half of the season. McCaffrey was also leaned on as a receiver when tight end Greg Olsen spent eight weeks on injured reserve, averaging 8.3 targets per game through that time with a high of 14.
“I’m pretty excited about him. He showed, first of all, that he can play in this league,” said coach Ron Rivera this week. “He’s a good football player. He does a lot of good things for us.”
It might even be fair to say that McCaffrey, because of his targets and implementation throughout the route tree, even developed into a fluid definition of the “No. 2 receiver” on the team when Devin Funchess stepped into the No. 1 role following the trade of Kelvin Benjamin.
But in the run game, McCaffrey has struggled. While he had 435 rushing yards this season, he averaged just 27.2 yards per game, with 3.7 yards per carry (he gets just 7.3 carries per game). Counterpart Jonathan Stewart finished with 45.3 rushing yards per game (3.4 yards per carry). Carolina’s No. 4 rank in the NFL in rushing is actually more indicative of Newton, who finished the regular season with a career-high 47.1 rushing yards per game and 5.4 yards per carry.
With Sunday’s wild-card game against New Orleans approaching quickly, Carolina’s coaching staff is still finding McCaffrey’s place in the offense while a fellow rookie – dynamic running back Alvin Kamara – is showing just how effective a player with the skill sets both possess can be in the NFL.
A lot to handle
Along with the idea that McCaffrey would line up all over the field as a receiver and in the backfield as a running back, there were expectations that McCaffrey could be an explosive playmaker on punt return. The Panthers stopped using him at the position after a few games, citing that the rookie had too much on his plate.
In fact, offensive coordinator Mike Shula said McCaffrey had more responsibility given to him in his rookie year than any other first-year player he’d been around. McCaffrey was given a full route tree during training camp despite missing spring workouts because of Stanford’s quarter-system rule, and had to learn the offense a step behind his counterparts.
At that point, Rivera said this week, the staff essentially went through a trial-and-error period week to week during which they “experimented” to figure out where McCaffrey could be best used. This is something all rookies must go through, but factoring in McCaffrey’s ability at various positions, his absence during the spring and Newton’s injury, said Rivera, and the process became more extensive.
Mostly, coaches have been trying to find consistency with that versatiliy.
“There are a lot of things that we can do with him. And they all involve moving him from one spot to another,” said Rivera. “We asked a lot of him this year. He handled it very well. But the thing we’ve got to do is we’ve got to make sure there is a pattern to the way we use him, whether we use him as a wide receiver, a ‘Z’ or an ‘X’, or we put him in the slot like our ‘F’ or we use him as a running back. We’ve got to make sure we have a plan each week, specifically, to exploit matchups and his skill set.”
Shula was asked about specifics on Monday – what did he find worked well with McCaffrey, and what did not? – but offered a vague response.
“Well, I think more so than anything is that there’s still the ceiling, we don’t know where the ceiling is yet. Which is a good thing,” he said. “I think he’s done a lot of good things for us, and we need to continue to build off those.
“The things that maybe he hasn’t done quite as well, he’ll do well. I really and truly believe it. And now, just fitting him in and giving him a chance to help us win, but not obviously trying to get him the ball every play. ...We have other guys besides him that we feel like are going to make plays for us.”
Shula added that it may be helpful for McCaffrey’s production and skill set to “get Cam Newton playing fast” and spreading the ball around.
Statistically, that’s accurate. His highest yards per catch average (8.6) and yards per carry average (4.2 ) also came on the plays when the offense went no-huddle. But improvement could perhaps also come situationally: McCaffrey took 25 of his carries on second downs of 4 yards or longer, while averaging 2.4 yards per carry on second down with 4-6 yards to gain, and 5.2 yards per carry on second down and 10-plus yards to gain.
Expectation vs. reality
Aside from the responsibility placed on him throughout the year internally, the No. 8 pick in the NFL draft, McCaffrey also had a lot of expectation placed externally on him – like musings of whether he could be a “Rookie of the Year” candidate before the season started.
And yet, the player Carolina will face a third time this season in Sunday’s wild-card round against New Orleans – a third-round draft pick – actually is having the year many thought McCaffrey would have.
How could Kamara not be 2017’s Rookie of the Year? Where McCaffrey has impressed, Kamara has dazzled.
Kamara only averaged 7.5 carries per game during the regular season, but he finished the year as the league leader in yards per carry (ironically just ahead of Newton), with 6.1. He rushed for 728 yards and eight touchdowns while leading all running backs with 81 catches for 826 yards and five touchdowns. Kamara has also caught 81 percent of passes thrown to him this year (McCaffrey caught 70.1 percent), although partial credit of that is owed to quarterback Drew Brees, who had a regular-season completion percentage of 72.0, the highest for a single season in league history.
Kamara’s evasiveness especially stands out to opponents. When Carolina prepared to face New Orleans for the second time this year, safety Kurt Coleman noted that Kamara tends to let whatever side of his body that gets hit go limp while continuing to drive his feet, which makes defenders who don’t wrap slip off of him. The Panthers saw this firsthand when Kamara seemed to bend in half despite contact with linebacker Shaq Thompson at the goal line on a touchdown run in Week 13.
“You’ve got to make sure you hit and wrap up on this young man,” said Rivera. “He’s got a great low center of gravity. He’s got great balance, he’s very difficult. ...You can’t try to knock him off his feet. ...He’s got great balance. You have to make sure you hit, you deliver, then you wrap.”
Part of the success the Saints have had with Kamara may be because of his own running back counterpart, Mark Ingram. Ingram and Kamara became the first running back tandem in NFL history to each record at least 1,500 yards from scrimmage in the same season.
New Orleans is both fluid and complementary with the dynamic backs, using both as pass-catchers on quick screens out of the backfield and as ball-carriers in a traditional run game, while still favoring Kamara for the former and Ingram for the latter. But when teams have to factor in the ability of both, it adds a layer for defense players to consider.
Stopping the big-play ability of both will be a key factor for Carolina this Sunday. The Panthers gave up at least one explosive run in each of the teams’ last two matchups: A 25-yard touchdown run by Kamara in Week 3 and a 72-yard run by Ingram in Week 13 that set up a touchdown two plays later.
“You go back and look at it, and if there’s any way you could eliminate that,” said Rivera, “it’s a different set of circumstances.”