Carolina Panthers

Christian McCaffrey speeds the evolution, but here’s why it’s still Panthers football

Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) brings a speed and elusiveness to the NFL that will be hard to handle one-on-one. In the Panthers’ offense, the players who complement his skills should also benefit.
Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) brings a speed and elusiveness to the NFL that will be hard to handle one-on-one. In the Panthers’ offense, the players who complement his skills should also benefit. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

When a ticked-off Ron Rivera told media members about a play they “probably didn’t notice” after a turnover-filled preseason loss to Tennessee, there was some confusion.

The play the Carolina Panthers head coach was most excited about was a punishing 4-yard run by power back Jonathan Stewart.

It didn’t appear, upon first look, to be anything special.

But Rivera liked the run because it was commanding and physical, and set the foundation for the explosive, elusive touchdown scored six plays later by rookie Christian McCaffrey.

Rivera used the word “evolve” when discussing what his offense needed to do as Carolina’s dismal 6-10 season drew to a close in 2016. It was a year in which what had been one of the most exciting and productive offenses in the NFL looked slow, sloppy, ineffective, and, well, like it had been figured out.

So Rivera and former general manager Dave Gettleman set about fixing that, by drafting fast, shifty hybrid threats with their first and second-round picks: McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel.

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Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart (28) will be the veteran power runner to complement rookie speedster Christian McCaffrey. Both are essential to Carolina’s success. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

The idea of “evolution” was to get faster, create options for quarterback Cam Newton, take the pressure off the offensive line and Newton as a runner, and shift the attention to McCaffrey and Samuel, freeing up other playmakers.

With the two picks, Carolina also wanted to create mismatches. And the picks made it easy to get carried away with the potential.

But the word “evolve” never meant that the team would start running an entirely new offense. Carolina has always been know for its physicality. Even when the team drafted a mobile quarterback back in 2011, they picked one who loves to run between the tackles.

“I don’t think you overhaul,” veteran tight end Greg Olsen said at training camp. “Whether that word is ‘evolve’ or whatever the word is – teams that get stuck doing just what they’ve done in the past, whether they’ve had success or not, are going to fall behind in this league.”

The base of the playbook should remain the same, but a few chapters have been added.

Most of these chapters mean “speed,” and end with McCaffrey.

But they might not start with him.

‘He’s got shake’

McCaffrey hasn’t looked like a rookie for a moment this spring and summer, not even on his very first day in Charlotte.

He was behind everyone else thanks to an antiquated rule that forces players from schools on the quarter system to wait until classes are over before being able to participate in NFL practices, so McCaffrey could only attend the final day of minicamp.

Yet he had more to do than most, as the lone running back on the roster with a full receiver route tree to study. The staff promptly threw a little of everything at McCaffrey on his first day, and he fared well.

Since that practice, it’s been an all-out sprint for McCaffrey.

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Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) has been at a full sprint in the team’s offense since his (late) arrival to Charlotte. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

True to his signature style, there’s been plenty of shimmy, too.

He’s the new era of the hybrid offensive player, with a nasty first step and corresponding cut in his toolbelt, and the skill and versatility to line up anywhere and be a threat.

In fact, McCaffrey doesn’t really call himself a running back. Or a receiver. What he prefers to be thought of is “a playmaker”. Instead of getting “carries” or “catches,” the rookie will get “touches.”

They will be designed to maximize what McCaffrey does best: Capitalize on mismatches with speed and a juke or double move, and create the space needed to extend a play.

“He’s pretty unstoppable as far as coming out of the backfield running routes,” Stewart said. “I can tell you now there’s not going to be anybody in this league that can cover him 1-on-1.”

Not even Carolina’s star linebackers Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson, each among the elite in the league and each of whom McCaffrey put in a blender during training camp.

“It’s not a good feeling,” said Luke Kuechly. “You hope that somebody is by him. ... You have to make sure you’re playing with good leverage, and hopefully some other guys on the team are running to help you out.”

They might be running to help, but they’ll have to catch McCaffrey first.

‘That’s Carolina football’

There is a prodigious amount of speed now added to the offense, sure, and some much-needed shiftiness, too.

But Carolina’s foundation will stay the same.

The importance of having power runner Stewart as the team’s lead back can’t be understated. As it always has, pounding the ball on the ground wears defenses out.

But now, a defense tested by Stewart’s physicality on the field will also have to account for McCaffrey, too, and at a rapid rate.

That exemplifies the other word Rivera has used a lot this preseason: “Complementary.”

“If we can be physical in nature up front and dictate to the defenses that that’s how we’ll play, and then you switch it up with Christian, yeah, I think that’s what we’re looking for,” Rivera said. “What’s going to happen now is you’re going to start to see things popping up to handle (McCaffrey), and now this should open up some other things for us.”

That was pretty clear in the exhibition against Jacksonville. Newton handed the ball off twice to Stewart, twice to McCaffrey and then twice to Stewart again for a total of 54 rushing yards (42 were Stewart’s, including a bruising 31-yard pop).

Then, Newton unfurled a quick check-down pass to McCaffrey that bit off another 12 yards and had the Jaguars’ defense stumbling. Newton handed off the ball to McCaffrey twice more, and as the defense began to crowd in close, Newton found receiver Kelvin Benjamin on an easy slant for a touchdown.

But it was all set up by Stewart.

“That’s Carolina football,” said Newton. “We can give a lot of fluff every now and then, but to see (our backs) running downhill at you and having our offensive line on the second level ... that’s how we can set the tone. We’re going to need that.”

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @jourdanrodrigue

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