CHARLOTTE – In 2017, after being drafted eighth overall by the Panthers, Christian McCaffrey had quite the rookie season. He became the first running back in NFL history with at least 70 receptions and five receiving touchdowns. He set Panthers records for receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns by a running back in a single season. He set more franchise records receptions, scrimmage yards, yards after catch and first downs by a rookie. He then had the most receiving yards and longest receiving touchdown by any Panthers running back in a playoff game.
McCaffrey finished as a finalist for the NFL Rookie of the Year award.
And yet, heading into 2018 after the departure of backfield mate Jonathan Stewart, people still asked the questions like annoying gnats that don’t really bite, but won’t leave you alone.
Can McCaffrey handle the full workload by himself?
Can he run the ball between the tackles?
Will he get hurt because of his small size?
McCaffrey didn’t have to say all that much to answer each of those questions in his sophomore campaign.
He let the pictures, highlights and internet memes and statistics do all the talking.
In Week 2 at Atlanta, he tied Steve Smith’s franchise record for receptions in a game with 14. He also broke his own franchise record with 102 receiving yards.
One week later, McCaffrey ran for a career-high 184 yards on the ground, becoming the first player in franchise history with 100 receiving yards and 100 rushing yards in consecutive games.
In Pittsburgh, McCaffrey surpassed 1,000 career rushing yards in his first 25 career games, becoming one of just seven players in NFL history to do so.
Two weeks later, he ran for 125 yards and tallied 112 yards receiving, breaking the franchise record for scrimmage yards in a game and becoming the first player in franchise history with 100 rushing and 100 receiving yards.
A week after that at Tampa Bay, McCaffrey became the first player in NFL history to tally at least 50 rushing yards and 50 receiving yards in five consecutive games.
On Monday Night Football against the Saints, McCaffrey broke the franchise single-season record for scrimmage yards on the first drive, then he threw a 50-yard touchdown pass to tight end Chris Manhertz. By the end of the game, he had become just the second player in NFL history with 50 yards passing, rushing and receiving in the same game.
In the final home game of the season, McCaffrey topped 1,000 rushing yards on his first drive. He then proceeded to make 12 receptions for 77 yards, bringing him to 106 catches by game’s end. That number broke the NFL single-season record for receptions by a running back and the Panthers single-season record for most receptions by a player regardless of position.
In the season finale at New Orleans, he became just the third player in NFL history (along with Herschel Walker and Alvin Kamara) to accumulate over 1,500 rushing and 1,500 total receiving yards in his first two NFL seasons.
Not too bad for an undersized running back.
“The word on the street was that Christian couldn’t run inside,” offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. “His ability to run inside – that’s where it starts. Off of that it creates all those different things for him.
"I think we as coaches had to learn how to use him a lot more than he had to learn how to play the NFL game.”
Being one of the most versatile running backs the NFL has ever seen doesn’t just come with breezy ease.
Over the summer, it became obvious that his offseason workout regimen had paid big dividends. He put on five pounds of muscle and began overpowering players in drills. One play in Week 2 at Atlanta went viral as McCaffrey stiff-armed Falcons safety Jordan Richards after it appeared he had wrapped him up.
As a runner, McCaffrey broke 20 tackles in 2017 and averaged 3.7 yards per carry. In 2018, he averaged 5.0 yards per carry while being stuffed on 5.9 percent of his rush attempts, the second lowest stuff percentage for any running back over 200 carries in the NFL.
McCaffrey was able to power the ball into the end zone in goal-to-go situations, and just over half of his rushing attempts and yards came in plays that went up the middle.
“Football is such a versatile game, and I’m always trying to be the most complete back I can be.” McCaffrey said.
His ability to be a threat to run inside, outside and catch passes on every down caused defenses headaches as they couldn’t game plan personnel and play call based on where McCaffrey was.
If it felt like he was always on the field, well, actually he was.
Before he only played one series in the season finale, he played 956 of 982 snaps for a league-high 97.3 percent. It marked the highest percentage of offensive snaps for a running back in the NFL since that statistic began being compiled in 2012.
McCaffrey scored 12 total touchdowns in Weeks 8-14, the most in the NFL in that seven-game stretch. It marked the second-most touchdowns scored in a seven-game stretch in franchise history.
And yet, for all of the numbers and the moments and the records. It wasn’t enough.
The Panthers finished the season on the outside of the playoffs looking in. McCaffrey wasn’t voted among the initial Pro Bowl honorees.
It’s hard to imagine accomplishing so much in one season and yet still having the drive and determination to do more.
“Nobody has higher goals than me,” McCaffrey said after the Pro Bowl rosters were announced. “I keep those to myself obviously, but I’ll continue to use that as a chip, continue to use it as fuel to my fire.”
Fuel to a fire that’s powering the future of the Panthers offense.