CHARLOTTE – The final touch of running back Christian McCaffrey’s rookie season was a perfect example of his capability.
Carolina was trailing New Orleans by 12 with 4:20 left in the NFC Wild Card playoff when quarterback Cam Newton took a shotgun snap with McCaffrey standing to his right in the backfield.
McCaffrey leaked out off the right side and met linebacker Craig Robertson at the line scrimmage. McCaffrey hit him with a quick series of stutter-steps and a head fake that caused the linebacker to lean left. At that point, McCaffrey had won the route. And he won big.
McCaffrey crossed Robertson’s face and created about three yards of separation. Newton delivered the pass near the right hash, and McCaffrey did the rest, running away from everyone for a 56-yard touchdown – the longest play of his career.
“I knew we needed a big play,” McCaffrey said after the Panthers’ 31-26 defeat. “I really just did my job.”
It was the kind of play that reminded you of those training camp drills where McCaffrey would terrorize linebackers one-on-one. It was the kind of play that McCaffrey was “inches away” from making in the closing moments of that Monday Night Football loss to the Eagles.
It was the kind of play – an explosive play – that we all expected to see more of.
“I think I fell short in a lot of areas,” McCaffrey said as he cleared out his locker before heading home to Colorado for the offseason. “But at the end of the day, you have to let the game come to you and learn from it.”
McCaffrey was known as big play machine at Stanford. But his first NFL season required a lot of patience and persistence. By his standards, big plays were few and far between.
The eighth overall pick produced eight plays that went for more than 20 yards during the regular season, and seven of them were receptions. The lone rush was a 40-yard scamper against the Jets.
McCaffrey struggled to establish a rhythm in the running game. He finished the year with 117 carries for 435 yards (3.7 average) and two touchdowns.
The passing game is where he made a major impact, recording 80 receptions (a franchise record among rookies) for 651 yards (a franchise record among running backs) and five touchdowns.
“It was a lot of hard work, looking back. It was exciting,” McCaffrey said. “And now I know the things I need to improve on for next year. I’m going to get to work on fixing those.
“It’s been an incredible learning experience, for sure. A lot of good, a lot of bad, and overall I’d say it was a good year.”
McCaffrey has already proven his effectiveness as a pass catcher. His 80 receptions ranked 14th among all players. But he’s continuously made one thing clear: He’s a running back by trade. He wants to be a more productive ball-carrier, a back who can do it all.
“I’m trying to become a complete back,” McCaffrey said. “I want to be a guy who doesn’t have to leave the field.
“I’ll be working my butt off this offseason to get better.”
McCaffrey’s offseason will begin with rehabbing a shoulder injury that he played with late in the season.
“He worked through that injury like a ten-year vet,” running back Jonathan Stewart said. “There is a lot in store going forward. He was a rookie, but you wouldn’t look at him and think this was his first rodeo. It was a heck of a rookie season.”
McCaffrey shouldered a hefty load for a rookie. The Panthers put a lot on their first-round pick, lining him up all over the place each week. His mere presence on the field – whether he got the ball or not – was invaluable for the offense.
Year One with McCaffrey involved plenty of experimentation. Year Two will involve a new coordinator, and both McCaffrey’s growth and the way he’s used will have a huge role in shaping the offense.
“He showed us he can play in this league,” head coach Ron Rivera said. “We as a coaching staff need to make sure we’re using him properly and putting him in position to have success. There are a lot of things that we can do with him. I think they all involve moving him from one spot to another. We asked a lot of him this year and he handled it very well.
“We have to make sure we have a plan each week specifically to exploit matchups and his skill set.”
View photos of rookie running back Christian McCaffrey from the 2017 season.