Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey made history on Sunday against Seattle, becoming the first player in the franchise to have 100 rushing yards and 100 receiving yards in a single game.
After the game, he got ready to face the media, pulling a long necklace over his head as he did so.
Its price tag? Three dollars.
That’s right on brand for McCaffrey, who likes to stay low-key.
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“He’s still cheap,” laughed his mother, Lisa McCaffrey, over the phone this week. “Maybe I should say ‘frugal.’ He’s smart, smart with his money. If it’s over $10, nope. He won’t buy it.”
She’s right. In 2017, when he was the Panthers’ No. 8 overall draft pick, McCaffrey let it slip that he was still sharing his parents’ HBO video-streaming account in order to watch “Game of Thrones,” even though he had just gotten nearly $11 million as a signing bonus.
As much as he’d like to stay out of the spotlight, though, McCaffrey’s star is steadily rising in his second NFL season.
He has 757 rushing yards and five touchdowns alongside 608 receiving yards and five more touchdowns. His 1,365 scrimmage yards make him the fourth-most productive running back or receiver in the league.
Carolina’s offense is highly productive once more, with a big chunk of it running through its most versatile, explosive players in McCaffrey and quarterback Cam Newton. The way the two play together is a glimpse of the future.
But Lisa offered another, even better, glimpse of her son, who has begun racking up commercials and sponsorship deals this year.
This November, he became a spokesman for Hulu, a popular television and movie streaming site.
“And yeah, he’s still on our Hulu account,” Lisa said, laughing. “Like, that’s a national commercial, son. Let’s go ahead and fork over the money for your own Hulu account.”
NFL fame and fortune haven’t changed McCaffrey much.
But he might be changing the NFL.
Back in the spring of 2017, the Panthers were considering three players with their upcoming No. 8 overall draft pick. They were scouting and investigating each very thoroughly.
But what sealed McCaffrey as the top choice in head coach Ron Rivera’s mind was a dinner after his Pro Day at Stanford. It included Rivera, Lisa, Christian’s father Ed McCaffrey, a former NFL player, running backs coach Jim Skipper and Christian.
“That was really, really fun, and also the start of his journey,” Lisa said. “At that point, we didn’t know if they liked him or not. We thought they liked him, but didn’t know if they were going to pick him. We were all trying to be on our best behavior.
“And you know how that works, when you’re all trying to be on your best behavior.”
They were all very nervous, Lisa said. She could tell McCaffrey really liked Rivera, but because the process was new, nobody really knew how to act.
Skipper broke the tension.
“(He) got out some salt shakers and some bread and started running through pass protections, drills with Christian with the utensils all on the table,” Lisa said. “That was the best. ... (Christian) and Ed, their eyes lit up. It was like Christmas morning for them. He was quizzing them a little bit, too, so Christian was thrilled and trying to make the right read with salt shakers.”
McCaffrey made the right impression on Rivera and Skipper.
“Just watching that interaction was really cool,” Rivera said. “And a lot of it reminded me of the background we did when we went after Cam (in 2011).
“I mean, we spent a lot of time on Christian. I think a lot more than people realize. ... When you go back and think about the things we did to try to understand who Christian is and what his potential is, we went into that draft knowing that we had to get that type of a weapon and that type of a player.”
Getting McCaffrey at No. 8 was one thing.
But using him correctly was another process entirely.
Adjusting to the player
McCaffrey is among the Panthers’ most popular players with the fan base. But there are still doubters, whether fans on social media or talking heads on television shows.
They have been around since his time at Stanford, where he broke Barry Sanders’ NCAA record for most all-purpose yards in a season in 2015. Still, many analysts said McCaffrey, because of his size — 5-foot-11 and just under 200 pounds when he entered the draft — would not be an every-down back in the NFL.
Some went so far as to suggest he’d be better as primarily a slot receiver, even though McCaffrey was the No. 2 rusher in the country in 2015 and No. 4 in 2016.
During McCaffrey’s rookie season with Carolina, he was largely the No. 2 back in tandem with former longtime starter Jonathan Stewart.
McCaffrey rushed for 435 yards and just 3.7 yards per carry. While he was one of Newton’s only reliable receivers in 2017, there was the feeling that McCaffrey never got into a rhythm as a runner as he split carries with Stewart.
Before offensive coordinator Norv Turner joined the Panthers in January, he heard the chatter, and the hypothesis that McCaffrey would never be able to do, well, exactly what he’s doing now with just five added pounds of muscle on his frame.
“(It was) kind of the word on the street, I would say, that Christian couldn’t run inside,” Turner said. “And I had seen him do it his whole career (in college) at a pretty high level.
“Obviously it was a much different level, but I don’t think football changes. And I think his ability to run inside, that is where it starts. After that, it creates all those different things for him.”
Still, Carolina picked up downhill runner C.J. Anderson in free agency this spring, leading many to believe that Anderson would fill Stewart’s role and the Panthers would continue to use McCaffrey in complement.
But as Turner immersed himself in the Panthers’ organization and got to know McCaffrey, his original plans for the running back adjusted to what he came to believe McCaffrey could do.
“I think understanding a little bit more about Christian may have (prompted Turner) to call the plays that he calls and design the plays the way he designs them,” Rivera said earlier this month, after the Panthers waived Anderson.
But now, McCaffrey is more than an all-purpose, every-down back.
McCaffrey is an every-snap back.
Rivera raised eyebrows before Carolina’s training camp began this summer when he said he’d like to see McCaffrey get 25 to 30 touches per game.
But McCaffrey is averaging 20.3 per game, with a high of 30 (versus Cincinnati) and a low of 13 (versus Philadelphia). McCaffrey isn’t force-fed. His touches are dictated by how defenses play Carolina.
But McCaffrey rarely leaves the field, even if he’s not getting the ball. McCaffrey has played 97 percent of the Panthers’ offensive snaps this season, nearly a 30 percentage-point increase from his rookie year.
When he’s not catching a pass or running the ball, he’s pass-protecting or being used as a decoy.
“When they take you at the eighth pick, you have a lot of people counting on you,” McCaffrey said. “So I knew it was going to be a pivotal (role).
“But at the same time, you still have to earn everything. And that’s kind of my mindset, how it’s always been.”
No other running back in the NFL plays as many snaps as McCaffrey. So he’s definitely earning his yardage — and the respect of his teammates, as he continues to tirelessly produce.
“C-Mac has defied all odds,” Newton said Wednesday. “The thing that has always put me at comfort with C-Mac is he’s always been a workhorse. He’s always been a playmaker. There’s no denying that.
“C-Mac was everything (we knew he could be), and a bag of chips.”
Lisa McCaffrey joked that she likes to take credit for her son’s stamina. She “accidentally-on-purpose” enrolled him in a hyper-intense youth basketball league as a child.
“We used to go down to a place called Gold Crown (in Colorado), and he was on these little all-star basketball teams,” she said. “And (they played) like five games per day. Those were way more intense than any NFL game I’ve ever been to. Playing in these packed gyms where there’s like a million people, whistles, people yelling, parents yelling at the top of their lungs, some completely inappropriate yelling at the other teams, and oh my gosh, just the most intense games ever.”
Christian never wanted to leave the court, she said. And that didn’t change in college.
“His first play as a freshman at Stanford was a touchdown, which was pretty cool,” Lisa said. “And then the next play they were going to pull him out on the special teams play, and he was like, ‘no, I’m not coming out.’ And then he ended up running down and making the tackle.”
He’s no different now.
On Sunday against Seattle, McCaffrey broke a 59-yard run in the fourth quarter, after he had already touched the ball 24 times.
Turner knew he could handle the workload. So he called another run play. And then another. And then, he called the 2-yard touchdown pass from Newton to McCaffrey that capped the drive.
“Any other average running back would’ve tapped his head (after that 59-yard run) and said, ‘I need a blow,’” Newton said. “The play came in, I said, ‘Another run play?’
“I looked at (Christian) and he said, ‘I’m ready to (expletive) go.’”
Shaping the league
This week, Newton gave the ultimate nod of respect to McCaffrey.
He thinks McCaffrey, along with a handful of versatile running backs and quarterbacks across the league, are shaping the NFL’s future.
“The whole running back position has evolved. No doubt about it,” Newton said. “When you see guys like Christian, see guys like Todd Gurley, Alvin Kamara. Le’Veon Bell. Ezekiel Elliott, Kareem Hunt. Those guys are all-down backs. ... You just have to get geared up to play them for 60 plays a game.
“And they can take a screen pass, score. They can take a trap, score. They can block in the pass game. They’re everything. And they’re changing the game. My hat goes off to all of those guys knowing that they’re a part of the evolving of the game, just like dual-threat quarterbacks.”
And like they’ve tried to do for dual-threat quarterbacks over the years, teams will have to find a way to counter McCaffrey and the other backs.
When prolific dual-threat quarterback Michael Vick was in the league, for example, the Panthers specifically drafted now-veteran linebacker Thomas Davis, who many teams considered a safety, to help defend Vick as a runner in 2005.
And when the Panthers drafted Newton first overall in 2011, other NFC South rivals drafted or shifted personnel and scheme to try to defend him more effectively.
The ripple effect of teams trying to counter prolific playmakers is part of the NFL’s constant evolution.
“When we look back, years down the line, and we see certain players,” Newton said, “we’re going to be able to say that during this decade of football is when that (running back) position changed.”
He thinks McCaffrey is one of the players who will, someday, change the NFL.
Maybe McCaffrey will even have his own Hulu account by then.