Scott Fowler

Mike Shula must stop misusing Christian McCaffrey (plus my Panthers-Saints prediction)

This is where you want Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) -- out in space. Forcing McCaffrey to run the ball between the tackles time and again is like trying to force a square peg into a round hole, Observer columnist Scott Fowler says.
This is where you want Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) -- out in space. Forcing McCaffrey to run the ball between the tackles time and again is like trying to force a square peg into a round hole, Observer columnist Scott Fowler says. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Before we get to this week’s prediction, let’s talk about one other issue:

I am tired of watching Christian McCaffrey run between the tackles.

If you own a Ferrari, you do not take it to a demolition derby.

Yes, occasionally the Ferrari can still escape, just like McCaffrey can sometimes burst into the secondary on a draw on third-and-8.

But a Ferrari like McCaffrey is meant for the open road. That’s what offensive coordinator Mike Shula has to fully realize. I know he knows this to an extent, but he has yet to completely embrace the concept.

When Jonathan Stewart said in training camp that no one in the NFL can cover McCaffrey one-on-one, and when Steve Smith said in August he expected McCaffrey to contend for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, neither man was referring to plays when the 5-11, 205-pound McCaffrey takes a handoff from Cam Newton with seven defensive guys – all of whom outweigh him by at least 20 pounds – within 5 yards of him. That’s how you carry the ball eight times for 10 yards, as McCaffrey did against Buffalo.

Now McCaffrey shares some of the blame for those numbers, too – he is sometimes dancing too much in the backfield and occasionally getting brought down with an arm tackle. But the whole idea of a steady dose of McCaffrey inside is too much of a “square-peg-round-hole” thing.

scott-mccaff
Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) can occasionally hop through a gap on an inside run, as he did here against Buffalo, but the concept should be used sparingly. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

When Stewart and Smith made their comments, they were talking about getting the ball to No. 22 in space, where McCaffrey is so fast and elusive he can make people look silly. They meant on pass routes, pitchouts, bubble screens and a lot of other things the Panthers are already doing – but still not doing often enough. (I don’t like McCaffrey in the Wildcat formation, either, unless he is going to throw the ball. Otherwise, too predictable.)

If McCaffrey has 15 touches against New Orleans Sunday on offense, I hope that at least 10-12 of them come outside the tackles. That’s what a Ferrari is for.

▪  And, while we are on the topic of McCaffrey, I will make a prediction. I think the Panthers actually do understand this and will stop banging their head into the “inside-the-tackles” wall quite as often. I think that Sunday will be the day for McCaffrey’s first NFL touchdown. He should have had it last week but for Cam Newton’s nasty overthrow, but this week feels like the time.

▪  There is no doubt that former Panther Ted Ginn Jr. will test the Carolina secondary deep a few times Sunday. Ginn’s speed is still upper-tier, but he and Drew Brees really haven’t figured out how to make a big impact together yet. Ginn has a modest seven catches for 77 yards and no touchdowns through two games with the Saints, which probably means to watch out Sunday.

▪  Prediction time. Like the Panthers, I am 2-0 so far this year. For my third pick of the season, I will ride with Carolina once again Sunday at home.

My prediction: Carolina 27, New Orleans 20.

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140, @scott_fowler

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