In the midst of his first winning season in 2013, Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera was dubbed “Riverboat Ron” for his decision to chuck caution to the side and start going for more fourth-down conversions.
Fans loved the nickname. Photoshopped images of Rivera in old-timey gambling attire went viral and a line of Riverboat Ron T-shirts raised money for the Humane Society.
But there was one problem.
That go-for-broke mentality isn’t really what Rivera is all about. The former Bears linebacker and NFL defensive coordinator conceded that “Calculated Risk-Taker” was closer to the mark.
Why the history lesson four years later, in the middle of draft season?
Well, as Panthers fans – and the team’s front office – engage in the Great Running Back Debate, it’s instructive to consider whether LSU’s Leonard Fournette or Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey best fits the philosophies of Rivera and offensive coordinator Mike Shula.
Because as talented as both backs are and as many records as each shattered, they have widely disparate skill sets.
Fournette, 6-foot and 228 pounds, is the Tonka truck your kid unwraps at Christmas and immediately starts running into walls and gouging the drywall.
McCaffrey, 5-11 and 202 pounds, is the remote-control car that zips across the hardwood floors and slips under the furniture.
Deciding which toy makes the most sense for the Panthers at No. 8 has dominated the discussion in the lead-up to the April 27-29 NFL draft.
“Wow, that’s a great question. They’re completely different backs,” former NFL coach Jon Gruden said. “I think it depends on what your vision is offensively, what you want to do.”
“McCaffrey’s a jack-of-all trades. You’ve got to be able to use him creatively in your passing game. ... In the return games obviously, but as a receiver, as a guy that can line up in any formation and be a threat at any time, if that’s your offense I think McCaffrey’s for you,” Gruden, ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” analyst, said Wednesday during a conference call with reporters.
“If you’re looking to be a little more conventional, take the burden off your quarterback and pound the ball, Fournette is your guy. I think it all depends on which direction Ron Rivera and coach Shula want to go.”
The Panthers have made no secret about wanting to ease the burden on quarterback Cam Newton. Doing that conventionally means drafting Fournette, whose physical running style is similar to that of Jonathan Stewart, who turned 30 last month.
While Fournette has been linked to the Panthers from the earliest stages of the pre-draft process, McCaffrey has been flying up draft boards the past couple of weeks.
ESPN’s Mel Kiper now has McCaffrey rated as his top back, and analyst Tony Pauline reported a team picking in the teens told McCaffrey it will draft him if he’s available.
The sense here is the Panthers prefer Fournette, and I happen to think he’s best suited for their power run game. His physicality will force defenses to commit a safety near the line of scrimmage, opening up the play-action passes – something Rivera wants to do more of.
Rivera often references the versatility of the Panthers’ run game when Stewart and DeAngelo Williams shared carries. And while Williams had more breakaway speed than Stewart and was effective catching screens, the Panthers did not line him up in the slot and seldom threw to him downfield, as any team that drafts McCaffrey would.
But there’s a very real possibility Fournette will not be around when the Panthers are on the clock next Thursday night. Many in league circles believe Fournette will not fall below Jacksonville at No. 4.
In that scenario – and assuming Stanford edge rusher Solomon Thomas and LSU safety Jamal Adams are gone – I think McCaffrey is the choice for Carolina. Newton needs another playmaker, and McCaffrey fits that description better than he plays a harmonica.
With Ted Ginn Jr. and Philly Brown leaving in free agency, Carolina lacks a return specialist and a slot receiver, and could stand to add a more dynamic, change-of-pace back to complement Stewart.
They’d get three for the price of one by taking McCaffrey.
While Fournette might mesh better in Shula’s system, it’s not as though drafting McCaffrey would be a square peg/round hole situation.
Despite the play-calling criticism he endures, Shula uses a variety of different formations. Shula was a fan of running bubble-type motions with Brown and found ways to get the ball to the speedy Ginn on reverses and end-arounds.
In addition to mentioning the play-action game, Rivera also suggested the Panthers might look to roll Newton out of the pocket more. Those types of fast-hitting passes would play to McCaffrey’s quickness and elusiveness.
Because of McCaffrey’s NFL pedigree, he has contacts throughout the league that figure to enhance his draft status. He’s the son of former Denver wide receiver Ed McCaffrey, so the Broncos seem to be a natural fit.
But there’s also talk the 49ers – under GM John Lynch, an ex-Bronco, and coach Kyle Shanahan, son of former Denver coach Mike Shanahan – might try to trade back from No. 2 to take McCaffrey.
Meanwhile, Eagles football operations director Brian Dawkins was one of McCaffrey’s high school coaches in Denver.
The Panthers have their own connection to McCaffrey. Recently hired receivers coach Lance Taylor was Stanford’s running backs coach when McCaffrey was re-writing the NCAA’s all-purpose yardage record.
There’s no question McCaffrey would fill a lot of roles – and holes – for the Panthers.
Fournette is a more traditional back, one who will crush the spirit of a lot of would-be tacklers and add juice to the running attack.
“I know Jonathan Stewart’s 30 years old now. Fozzy Whittaker is there. They’ve got some pretty good backup, young backs,” Gruden said. “But if you want a feature back, if you want an I-formation tailback, Fournette is your guy. I just think he’s built for the long haul. He’s a punishing runner. I do like him a lot.”
The Panthers seem to like him a lot, too. Ditto Jacksonville and maybe some other teams picking in the top 10.
But if Fournette should fall to the Panthers at 8, Dave Gettleman will have to decide whether to play it safe and hand Calculated Risk-Taker Ron a Tonka truck or go full Riverboat and take the three-in-one McCaffrey.
That would be a good problem to have on draft night.