Christian McCaffrey did not have a monumental NFL debut Wednesday night at Bank of America Stadium, but it certainly was a promising one.
McCaffrey had seven carries for 33 yards against the Houston Texans before being retired for the night midway through the second quarter in the Carolina Panthers’ 27-17 win. That was enough for Panthers fans to get a taste of what has been going on in training camp – but only a taste.
McCaffrey had one impressive 12-yard run that came a single stumble from having a chance to go all the way. Mostly, though, the rookie running back ground out yardage in reasonable but not excessive chunks, averaging 4.7 yards per carry and alternating his runs about evenly between the tackles and around the end. He did not get a pass thrown anywhere near him, as the one screen pass going his way was batted down at the line of scrimmage. He also didn’t return any punts – head coach Ron Rivera wants to use McCaffrey as his primary punt returner, but wants to keep the injury risk as low as possible in the preseason.
Said McCaffrey of his night: “It felt great. You get so lost in the grind sometimes you forget that football is the best thing in the world. As soon as that first play kind of happened … It was a lot of fun.”
McCaffrey also said he “should have” kept his feet on one run, a play on which he thought he had a chance to score if he did. Still, McCaffrey said: “I had a blast out there. ... You’ve been away from playing for so long. It’s always extremely exciting.”
“He did good,” tight end Greg Olsen said of McCaffrey. “He got his feet wet, kind of got used to the action – he’s going to do a lot for us.”
We will have to wait awhile to see McCaffrey’s first NFL touchdown – although given what I’ve seen at training camp, we won’t be waiting too long.
Even before the game began, McCaffrey had impressed one of the players to whom he is often compared to due to his size and elusiveness – former Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith.
Smith, working for NFL Network, interviewed McCaffrey several hours before the game and later gave his thoughts on the rookie on-air.
“I personally think he’s going to have a fantastic year,” Smith said, “and he’s going to be one of the guys up for rookie of the year.”
While McCaffrey was still on the NFL Network set a few feet away, Smith referenced the old nickname that DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart had when they were at their peak in the Carolina backfield together: Double Trouble.
“Here in Carolina, they had Double Trouble,” Smith said. “They had a nickname. You think maybe ‘Ebony and Ivory’ for a nickname?”
McCaffrey laughed it off, saying any nickname would take time to stick. The name Smith referenced – which he later said was “tongue in cheek” – harkens back to the 1982 song made famous by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder.
At 5-11 and 205 pounds, McCaffrey is smaller than most of his teammates. Smith always was, too.
But as Smith said on-camera of Carolina choosing McCaffrey at No. 8: “I thought it was a great pick. Everybody said the durability issue. But for me personally… being a guy who they questioned durability, I think you have a tremendous opportunity to set the path for other running backs who aren’t 6-4, who don’t look like Leonard Fournette.”
McCaffrey has drawn similar praise from his teammates in camp, most notably Stewart proclaiming: “I can tell you now, there's not going to be anybody in this league that can cover him one-on-one.”
We didn’t really get to see that part of the rookie’s game on Wednesday night.
But it’s coming.