Carolina Panthers

How good is Christian McCaffrey? After his almost-legendary buildup, it’s showtime

When Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) makes his NFL debut on Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers, he’ll have the weight of expectation in tow.
When Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) makes his NFL debut on Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers, he’ll have the weight of expectation in tow. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Before ever playing an NFL game, Carolina Panthers rookie running back Christian McCaffrey became an instant, made-for-social-media sensation by juking defenders and blowing past the team’s tandem of Pro Bowl linebackers during 1-on-1 pass drills at Wofford.

This was the Panthers’ new-look offense come to life in the steam of Spartanburg.

But this was not new for McCaffrey.

Since his earliest days as a football prodigy in Denver to his ankle-breaking, record-shattering career at Stanford, McCaffrey has been a handful for opposing defenses.

Nearly everyone thinks McCaffrey’s versatile, explosive skill set will transfer to the pro game – teammates, opposing players, scouts ... and the coach whose team will face McCaffrey on Sunday in his regular-season debut.

“He’s exceptional when it comes to studying the game and having a feel for the game. And his talent is way above most people’s,” said San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, who’s known McCaffrey since he was a kid.

“Anytime you’ve got a guy who can be a running back or receiver on any given play, it causes issues for a defense. I know it’ll be a challenge for us schematically and athletically to handle him.”

Home again

McCaffrey, the eighth overall pick in the April draft, will kick off his NFL career in the shadow of Stanford University, where he continued a family tradition of athletic success for the Cardinal, set an NCAA record for all-purpose yardage and played some epic games of Connect Four.

“It’ll be a pretty cool little homecoming and should be a lot of fun,” McCaffrey said. “It’ll be cool to see a lot of my former teammates and coaches and being able to play against Solomon (Thomas) will be a lot of fun.”

Thomas is the 49ers’ rookie defensive end, drafted No. 3 overall after a successful three-year career at Stanford. Thomas met McCaffrey at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl and the two shared an apartment in college.

It was insane, the kind of things he did as a freshman. Right then we just knew how special he was.

49ers rookie Solomon Thomas, on Panthers rookie and former Stanford teammate Christian McCaffrey

Besides coming to appreciate McCaffrey’s Connect Four competitiveness and his lack of skills in the kitchen, Thomas learned early on that the smallish McCaffrey had the kind of elusiveness and play-making abilities that transcend size.

During 7-on-7 drills the summer before their freshman seasons, McCaffrey looked to be in a different gear than some of the older defensive backs.

“He was just putting work on our senior safeties who were supposed to be the top in the nation, making it look like it’s nothing. Made them look like they were in slow motion, like they had slow feet,” Thomas said this week during a conference call. “It was insane, the kind of things he did as a freshman. Right then, we just knew how special he was.”

Solomon Thomas
In college, defensive lineman Solomon Thomas (94) never got a chance to hit Stanford teammate Christian McCaffrey. Sunday for the San Francisco 49ers he’ll get his chance – although McCaffrey joked it’s still against the rules. D. Ross Cameron AP

An athletic family

Shanahan reached that conclusion years earlier, when his father, Mike, was the Broncos’ coach and Ed McCaffrey was a starting receiver in Denver. Ed McCaffrey was a star player at Stanford, where his wife, Lisa, was on the soccer team.

Kyle Shanahan wore No. 87 – Ed McCaffrey’s number – at Texas, and remembers seeing the McCaffrey boys (four in all) grow up around the Broncos’ facility.

Christian McCaffrey (2)
Christian McCaffrey was the AP Player of the Year in 2015, when he finished second for the Heisman Trophy to Derrick Henry and established an NCAA mark with 3,864 all-purpose yards, including a school-record 2,019 rushing yards. Thomas Boyd AP

“They rolled deep. There was a bunch of them. They were all good athletes. I couldn’t tell them apart,” Shanahan said. “And then once I got older I started to realize, ‘Oh, I remember that one.’ Each year there was a new one who was playing sports, so I kinda get ‘em mixed up.”

▪  Max, the oldest, started 38 games in four seasons at Duke and joined the Saints’ practice squad this week after being cut in Green Bay.

▪  Christian was the AP Player of the Year in 2015, when he finished second for the Heisman Trophy to Derrick Henry and established an NCAA mark with 3,864 all-purpose yards, including a school-record 2,019 rushing yards.

▪  Dylan is a freshman quarterback at Michigan, while Luke, the youngest of the four boys, is a junior quarterback at Valor Christian (Colo.) High with multiple Division I offers.

Shanahan remembers watching Christian play a Pop Warner game at halftime of a Broncos’ game, and “he was making unbelievable moves back then.”

Given McCaffrey’s family tree – his grandfather David Sime was a silver medalist in the 100 at the 1960 Olympics and several aunts and uncles were Division I athletes – Shanahan is not surprised the McCaffrey millennials have kept it going.

“They’d be sitting there after the game and they’d all be wrestling or throwing the ball around. And if you know Ed or Lisa, you could tell that they were going to be athletes one way or another,” Shanahan said.

“I didn’t know they were going to be Heisman-type athletes and top-10 draft picks, just one after the other. But you had a pretty good feeling they were going to have pretty good careers.”

Carolina Panthers rookie running back Christian McCaffrey describes his first NFL touchdown, a 17-yard run against the Tennessee Titans on Saturday, Aug. 10, 2017.

Predicting big things

McCaffrey’s career is just getting started, but most NFL observers are predicting big things from a player who is expected to line up in the Panthers’ backfield, out wide as a receiver and back deep as the punt returner.

A scout from another NFC team compared the 5-11, 205-pound McCaffrey to Patriots receiver Julian Edelman in terms of his build, athleticism and versatility.

Panthers receivers coach Lance Taylor spent the past three seasons as McCaffrey’s position coach at Stanford. After Taylor was hired in February, he told Ron Rivera and the rest of the Carolina staff that McCaffrey had Luke Kuechly-like DNA.

The way he was wired. His preparation. His love for the game of football. His football IQ was very Luke-like.

Panthers assistant coach Lance Taylor, comparing Christian McCaffrey to Luke Kuechly

“The way he was wired. His preparation. His love for the game of football,” Taylor said. “His football IQ was very Luke-like.”

Taylor said veteran center Ryan Kalil stopped him this week and told him: “You were exactly right, Lance. The guy’s everything you said he was and your scouting report on him was spot on.”

Other Panthers’ veterans have been impressed with McCaffrey’s approach and preparedness. He has a meticulous stretching routine he does before games and practices.

“As a rookie he’s come in and done everything they’ve asked him, plus,” tight end Ed Dickson said. “The way he takes care of his body and everything, he acts like a veteran player in a rookie’s body.”

‘He wanted to hit’

That body was saved some wear and tear at Stanford because of Cardinal coach David Shaw’s rule that defensive players couldn’t hit McCaffrey, who also was held out of the spring game before his final season.

“The only problem was Christian would try to come at us. He wanted to hit,” Thomas said. “He’d say, ‘Come on, give me a little chip.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m not getting in trouble.’”

Christian McCaffrey(4)
Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) had his best performance of the preseason against the Tennessee Titans, when he had three plays that went for 12 yards or more. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

McCaffrey told Thomas in a group text this week that the rule still applies.

“So hopefully he believes it,” McCaffrey said, smiling.

McCaffrey’s best preseason showing came at Tennessee, where he had three plays of 16 yards or more, including a 38-yard reception on a screen pass. But some of McCaffrey’s best moments this summer came in practice, when he would wow his new teammates and coaches with his burst and fluid movements.

A sampling of their praises for the player whose Twitter handle is @run_cmc:

▪  “I’d say don’t blink when he’s out there because you’re going to miss the play.” – Dickson.

▪  “I can’t tell you that. Just beware. Beware.” – Kuechly on his advice for defensive coordinators preparing for McCaffrey.

I’d say don’t blink when he’s out there because you’re going to miss the play.

Carolina Panthers tight end Ed Dickson, on Christian McCaffrey

“His zero-to-60 is probably the best I’ve ever been around – his stop and start, his initial burst and quickness. But also his instincts and feel for the game. He’s kind of like Luke in that sense from an offensive player. ... He sees things before they actually develop and he’s able to react quicker than other people.” – Taylor.

McCaffrey says the speed of the game is the biggest difference from college. Based on how he looked cutting through the Titans’ defense, you wonder if he’s just repeating an oft-used cliche among rookies.

“The game goes a lot faster,” he said. “But we practice fast and we practice hard. And once you get up to speed with the guys it kind of becomes routine. You get used to it pretty quickly.”

‘I’m ready to roll’

Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula kept things mostly vanilla in the preseason. But McCaffrey was all over the field during the open practices in Spartanburg, even taking direct snaps in the Wildcat formation.

Christian McCaffrey(2)
Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey has always made a quick impression, even as a Stanford freshman in his first practice. Sunday, he’ll try to make one on the NFL. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

A reporter for one of the big sports networks this week tweeted that the Panthers had a separate playbook for McCaffrey. (They don’t, but Shula certainly has separate packages for the scatback.)

“Wherever they put me I feel comfortable,” McCaffrey said. “I feel like I’m ready to roll and ready to do it fast.”

Taylor, who arrived at Stanford the same time as McCaffrey, said being in staff meetings in Charlotte in which coaches are kicking out different plays for McCaffrey has been like deja vu.

Stanford coaches had the same conversations about how McCaffrey’s unique talents could best be utilized.

“The answer,” Taylor said, “became just get him the football as many different ways as you could.”

Buckle up.

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

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