Christian McCaffrey: Making big plays and little ones

Christian McCaffrey

CHARLOTTE — Christian McCaffrey routinely makes plays that make people stop and stare.

But last week, it wasn't necessarily any of the 187 yards he gained on his 30 touches.

Long after last week's win over the Jets, people were still talking about McCaffrey's blocking skills, after he took on a 310-pound defensive tackle who got through the line. That allowed quarterback Sam Darnold to connect with Robbie Anderson for a 57-yard touchdown pass, a play that doesn't get made if McCaffrey doesn't do another one of those things not every back can do.

The people whose job descriptions include blocking noticed, and were impressed.

"I think it was a terrific pickup," tight end Dan Arnold said. "We stopped as a tight end group today, and we're like, 'This is the kind of player he is.' It's exciting to play with a guy like that, who's going to step in front of it no matter what. He wants to win, not only for himself but for everyone else as well. And on the flip side, that's what he demands from everyone else, and it's only going to make this team that much better."

"To be able to do all the other stuff with it, I don't think there's many running backs in the league that can do that. You just appreciate how much he's willing to throw it all out on the field for you, and it inspires you to want to do the same."

Panthers head coach Matt Rhule offered a more succinct take, but it carried the same tone of appreciation.

"Basically he stepped up like a right guard, picked up for the right guard and blocked the guy," Rhule said. "Made a play for somebody else. That's what we're trying to build in the whole team."

McCaffrey laughed when asked if he had been made an honorary tight end or lineman after the play, humbly sloughing it off.

"Nah, those guys do a lot more than me," he said. "I just try to do my job and make those guys right. Because they make me right all the time."

McCaffrey's rushing yards and receptions and highlight plays deserve all the attention they get, because he's a rare player. Part of the reason he gets so much action on the field is he's not just a check-down option; he's a guy who can take check-downs and turn them into big plays.

But his willingness to do dirty work doesn't go unnoticed, and is part of the reason they brought in Royce Freeman and are trying to train rookie Chuba Hubbard to be a competent pass-blocker. In a perfect world, they could take some of the dirty work off McCaffrey's plate so he can do all the other stuff.

Hubbard's not quite there yet, and McCaffrey said he and running backs coach Jeff Nixon have worked with the rookie to get him ready. It's often one of the last things college backs learn when they come to the NFL. McCaffrey called himself fortunate to play in a pro-style offense at Stanford, where the skills were taught and polished.

"Obviously, it's a different speed in the NFL, and linebackers are better," McCaffrey said. "I think the biggest thing for guys coming into the league is the mental part of pass protecting, knowing who to block, and understanding defenses and blocking schemes.

"Once you can master that, that's half the battle. And after that, it's all technique, physicality, and a lot of effort."

And at the end of each of those pass protect reps is another bit of contact, and contact is again a big topic when it comes to the Panthers' star running back.

"It's all a blur," he said with a laugh when asked if blocking hurts as much as being tackled. "When you're playing, you don't realize what hurts and what doesn't."

Christian McCaffrey

McCaffrey had 30 touches in last week's win over the Jets (21 rushes, nine receptions), which didn't seem excessive as they were happening. It was the fifth time in his career he's had 30 or more in a game, including 37 in 2019 against the Texans.

But if you extrapolate that pace for a 17-game season, it would be a lot (510).

The league's all-time record for single-season touches is 492 by Tampa Bay running back James Wilder in 1984. (McCaffrey's 403 touches in 2019 ranks 41st on the all-time single-season list.)

And when you look at the top 10 on that list, there's no strong correlation to future injuries. Of the 10 highest-usage seasons logged by individual players, eight played at least 13 games the following year, and six played all 16. Wilder played all 16 after his record workload, and stacked another 418 touches in 1985.

Larry Johnson was second on that list at 457 in 2006 with the Chiefs, and he missed eight games the following year with a foot injury. Edgerrin James (fifth on the list with 450 in 2000) missed 10 games the following year, but he tore an ACL, which seems more of an acute injury than something you blame on attrition.

Clearly, the Panthers want to take care of McCaffrey for the long haul of a season, but Rhule said that after looking at the tape of the Jets game, he felt better about the amount of work McCaffrey put in.

"Obviously he had a lot of touches, but I didn't feel like there was a lot of dominant contact," Rhule said. "A lot of times, he was tackled by the ankle, or got out of bounds. He took, I think, two pretty good hits but always try to monitor that. We are able to get him out in protection so he didn't have to protect a ton, but he did at times. . . .

"We'll take it game-by-game with Christian, but early on in this game, we wanted to get out and play him."

Arnold, in expressing his admiration for the guy he has to block for, said there's "definitely an art" to avoiding big hits, and that "learning to mitigate some of those bigger ones" was a key.

And watching how McCaffrey does it adds another item to the list of things that impress teammates.

Christian McCaffrey

"The hardest thing to do when you're playing with him, is that you kind of want to look back and see what he's doing because he's doing something crazy, making guys miss everywhere," Arnold said. "The most important thing is to keep your eyes on the guy in front of you so you can keep blocking for him downfield.

"We're watching film, and the way he works guys, the way he keeps playing through everything is incredibly admirable, and it's something that we're going to need week in and week out. It kind of creates a spark for everybody."

McCaffrey, as is his custom, downplays his own part in the process, or the importance of any particular element.

He got a lot of questions about his usage this week and the potential cumulative effects, and shrugged them all off casually.

"It depends, sometimes you can get 30 touches and come out feeling great," he said. "Sometimes you get 14 touches and you might have taken one bad hit, and you feel terrible. That's the reason why guys get hurt all the time. That's part of the game, but I feel great, and that's all I'm focused on. . . .

"Nah, I honestly don't care. I don't focus on that stuff. I just focus on just becoming the best player I can be and taking care of my body at all times and prepare like I'm going to play the whole game."

View all of McCaffrey's 47 career touchdowns in the regular season and playoffs (29 rushing, 17 receiving, one passing) in chronological order since he entered the league in 2017.

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