WOFFORD, S.C. — At Carolina Panthers training camp this summer, a staffer made an offer to Christian McCaffrey. He would fill a non-traditional role, but one that was becoming increasingly necessary. He offered to say “no” to people on behalf of the star running back, because in a little more than a year with the organization, McCaffrey has seemingly never turned down a request.
After a practice, McCaffrey skims along the fence parallel to the field and signs autographs for fans. Next come the children of teammates, waddling up to the 22-year-old running back with Sharpie markers and footballs the size of their own torsos. Then there are the friends, the people who drove miles to see him work out. It takes a golf cart ride up a short, winding pathway toward a patch of shade before he’s able to remove his new GPS tracker and sip from a cold Gatorade, but all the while he’s screamed and hollered at like a member of One Direction leaving sound check. He’s asked if this will ever get old. He smiles and shakes his head. “Nah, never.”
It’s good to be McCaffrey, especially here and now. The tinkering being done to the Panthers offense could remove the cinder blocks off their most unique stars. New coordinator Norv Turner doesn’t see a problem with Cam Newton running again. And while he recoils at the LaDainian Tomlinson comparisons for McCaffrey, it’s clear he envisions a player who can knife a defense open on every down.
Turner talked up McCaffrey’s nose for running the ball in the red zone—a hint that he might take on a goal-line role now that Jonathan Stewart is gone. When asked if he was good enough to be an NFL receiver exclusively coming out of college: “He’s an outstanding route runner,” Turner says. “Outstanding. He’s a really good running back, really good at running the ball out of the backfield. He’s very versatile in terms of his style, and that’s what is going to make him hard to defend.”
The typically insular Panthers moved outside the organization for a new coordinator this offseason, in part to try and maximize the remainder of Newton’s prime. While only 29, a quarterback can only chuck fastballs while pulling off Jim Brown-like escapes for so long. They added D.J. Moore, a first-round pick, at receiver, and dotted the offense with speed and size to create mismatches.
But this unit will only go as far as Turner’s creativity with McCaffrey extends. To understand where they’re headed, it’s important to remember where they were a year ago.
Week 3 against the New Orleans Saints, the Panthers had a first-and-10 at their own 28-yard line, 3:40 to go in the third quarter, trailing by 18.
For the first two weeks of the season, McCaffrey was being utilized traditionally as an outlet receiver and non-traditionally in spurts, lining up twice in an H-back-type position, once in the Wildcat and three times in various spots as a pistol running back. However, his route tree was largely limited to quick sprint outs and flares. Option routes, five-yard ins and outs, and quick pivots.
Then came a matchup with safety Kenny Vaccaro. McCaffrey was in the slot to the left side and rounded off an out route at the 12-yard mark. The moment Vaccaro turned back toward Newton, McCaffrey shifted into the “up” portion of the out-and-up. It was executed perfectly; as Curtis Samuel took the other defender on that side of the field out of the picture with a deep route toward the middle of the field. By the time the ball reached his outstretched hands, McCaffrey had two full yards of separation. The play gained 66 yards. McCaffrey finished over 100 receiving yards for the first and only time in the 2017 regular season.
This embodied the thrill and pain of watching the Panthers, who would show flashes of brilliance with McCaffrey before pinning themselves into spots where he simply lined up as a shotgun back or slot wide receiver and ran short, safety-valve routes in case one of Newton’s deeper primary reads wasn’t open. By the numbers, McCaffrey averaged 6.1 rushing attempts and 8.3 targets per game over the first half of the season. Over the second half, 8.5 rushing attempts and 5.9 targets.
Two four-game samples from the first and second half of 2018 showed just how little the Panthers offense evolved around McCaffrey last season. For example, he was lined up as a shotgun running back on the right side an average of 10.5 times per game in each four-game window. His appearances as a standard-depth running back with Newton under center increased from about 4.5 times per game over the first half of the season to 5.25 in the second half. He split out wide about three times per game in the first half of the season, and 2.5 in the second half of the season. The most dramatic rise seemed to come in routes run per game, which, by my unofficial count, rose from 19.75 per game over the first-half four-game window to 25 per game in the second half.
The old system wasn’t discussed much this summer, and it didn’t have to be. There was enough of a difference that players—especially McCaffrey—have been buried in the install.
“There’s so many things I’ve learned already,” McCaffrey says. “Just specific little details about protections, specific routes. I’m able to see things before they happen and I’m just working really hard on continuing to get better at the little things. [Turner] is such a good coach and we have so many great weapons on this team, so he’s going to utilize everyone.”
Turner brushes off a question about the new breed of running back. At 66, he’s reached the point in his life where the NFL has rotated full circle. McCaffrey, Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley, Le’Veon Bell and David Johnson are Marshall Faulk, LaDainian Tomlinson, Edgar Bennett and Larry Centers with a lot more giddy-up.
“In this era there’s just more exposure,” he says. “People are going to think it’s different, but if you go back and look, Gary Anderson with the Chargers, he’d go in there, run routes, run the ball, go outside.”
He adds: “I have a better memory than a lot of people. Buffalo with Jim Kelly, they were spread out all the time. The running game they were doing back then is what most teams are doing now from the spread. Everyone wants to label something as theirs, but usually it’s been recycled.”
Of Turner’s 10 best offensive seasons as a coordinator or head coach, five featured backs who were targeted at least 75 times in a season (McCaffrey’s 113 targets in 2017 was the 12th-most ever recorded for a running back since targets became a regularly-kept stat in 1992). Thanks to a wide array of feature backs, from Tomlinson to Darren Sproles to Emmitt Smith to Terry Allen, Turner says he’s felt comfortable drawing on a few different systems to create something tailored to McCaffrey’s best attributes.
Turner mentioned McCaffrey’s second-half usage in Carolina last year, which was a little heavier on deploying him as an every-down back, while mixing in a few jet-sweep looks to open up the defense. It also cut down on routes run but increased longer routes and yardage potential. But he mentions Sproles, who could line up in the shotgun and get vertical so quickly that he’d rip open the middle of a defense like a good slot receiver. And he also mentioned Anderson who, back in the under-center days, was shifting out to the wide receiver spot in search of linebackers to draw in coverage.
Turner acknowledges that he won’t survive on recall alone in Carolina. McCaffrey and Newton represent something he’s never had before, which means coming up with something he’s never done. He is not yet exhausted from a summer of watching old Panthers tape, having long conversations with the Stanford football staff on how to best incorporate McCaffrey, and blending in notes he made during a season away in 2017. “The creative part of it is always fun,” he says.
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