It really isn’t complicated.
When the Carolina Panthers’ offense, led by coordinator Norv Turner, sees defensive looks that make it advantageous to utilize dual-threat running back Christian McCaffrey as a receiver, they line him up at receiver.
When they see looks that make it advantageous to utilize McCaffrey as a running back, they line him up at running back.
It’s even simpler to hear McCaffrey describe it, as he did after Sunday’s 31-21 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals at Bank of America Stadium.
“You know, as an offense we just try to move the ball forward,” he said. “However that is in the pass game and the run game, whatever is working we’re going to stick to it. ...
“Shoot. We want to do whatever is working.”
And McCaffrey the runner was working for Carolina on Sunday.
Like, really, really working.
McCaffrey rushed for a career-best 184 yards on 28 carries, and had two catches for 10 yards. It was the fourth-best rushing game in Carolina Panthers history.
Last week, what worked for Carolina was getting the ball to McCaffrey quickly as a receiver. He had 14 catches for 102 yards, his second 100-yard receiving game.
Targeting McCaffrey as a receiver, especially on underneath routes, did a few crucial things for the Panthers in Week 2.
First, they were playing from behind for much of the game and thus forced into more passing situations. Atlanta’s defense did not want to give up chunk plays, so they gave a little cushion to avoid anything getting behind them. That left the underneath routes available. And with tight end Greg Olsen out, who’s the go-to guy for those targets?
Second, Carolina’s offensive line last week featured a left tackle signed off the street on the previous Wednesday, two backup centers at right and left guard and a second-year player at right tackle who had started on the left in Week 1.
It was simply unrealistic that a rhythm could be established on the ground with such a makeshift front. So the quick passes that got the ball out of quarterback Cam Newton’s hand faster than ever, according to Turner, alleviated the pressure on the offensive line.
Third, the situation stacked McCaffrey’s snaps as a receiver, which, by default, hid some of Carolina’s running scheme. That likely made the Panthers a tough film study for Cincinnati.
Head coach Ron Rivera said McCaffrey’s substantial receiving tape might have helped set up Sunday’s success on the ground, and he added that Turner likely saw the Bengals lining up early on with the idea of countering McCaffrey as a receiver.
McCaffrey’s carries also gave Newton an opportunity to spread the ball around.
Newton targeted seven different players, and he finished 15 of 24 for 150 yards and two touchdowns, and rushed for two scores.
“Last week, we had some success with some of the checkdowns,” McCaffrey said. “This week, you see guys like (Devin Funchess) and Torrey (Smith), Jarius Wright, a lot of different guys, a lot of different weapons getting open and getting downfield. That kind of opens everything up for all of us.”
But there’s another facet of McCaffrey’s game that opens up opportunity for other players.
A triple threat
When McCaffrey entered the league after a prolific collegiate career as an all-purpose back, his third “weapon” was on special teams as a kick and punt returner.
In the NFL, he’s a triple threat too.
But just in a different way.
Because defenses, all too aware of McCaffrey’s ability as a receiver and as a runner, have to keep track of him as he moves all over the field, the Panthers are able to use him as a decoy on certain plays.
McCaffrey’s extra receiving tape from Atlanta helped on Sunday. He said after the game that he could tell the Bengals were emphasizing coverage on some of his routes.
While McCaffrey’s big Week 3 came without a touchdown of his own, he was a factor as a decoy in each scoring play on Sunday.
On running back C.J. Anderson’s 24-yard touchdown in the second quarter, for instance, McCaffrey was able to lead at least two players off of the ball as it was snapped, which opened space for Anderson.
The Panthers were in “21 Pony,” which is their name for the personnel grouping that features both McCaffrey and Anderson on the field at the same time along with a tight end and two receivers. That grouping leads to misdirection plays with motions and shifts, and it requires downfield blocking from the offensive line.
Carolina got all of that, plus six biscuits.
“It was a perfectly designed play,” said McCaffrey. “Took a couple of guys with me on the swing route to the right, and ran a screen to him on the left. He made it happen.
“You see Ryan Kalil blocking all the way to the end zone. That’s the kind of stuff that it takes every single guy doing their job to make something like that happen. Really fun to watch.”
Sit back and enjoy the show
Of course, there was a lot of noise about McCaffrey’s receptions last week.
When he wasn’t getting carries last week because of the looks Carolina was getting on defense, the narrative was that the Panthers couldn’t run the ball with him. This week, there will probably be someone out there who is concerned he isn’t getting enough looks at receiver, bless their heart.
“He’s obviously not just a receiving back, he’s a total running back,” Newton said after the game. “He shows signs that this is not a fluke, he’s been doing this his whole career — collegiately as well as professionally. The fact that we have a special talent, you can’t really gear in by using packages for him, he’s in there every single down and the more comfortable he gets — not only in passing routes but in blocking protections as well — that is a big thing for our offense to have.”
But McCaffrey’s been dealing with noise in some fashion or another since college. Like the enduring myth that, despite his 3,922 rushing yards in three seasons at Stanford, he “can’t run between the tackles.”
It’s a tired narrative. And McCaffrey’s tired of it too.
“It definitely bothers me,” he said. “But the more and more I go through this league, I learned that it’s never been about proving anyone wrong or proving anybody right. Just proving myself right. And that’s the biggest thing that I’ve had to mentally take over as I continue to grow.”
It’s time to stop nit-picking at conceptions of what category McCaffrey should or shouldn’t fall into, sit back, and accept him for the player he is. Not just a running back; not just a receiver.
A heck of a player.
Wherever he plays.