Scott Fowler

An ‘almost’ sort of season: Will Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey ever break loose?

If I had to pick one play to symbolize the first seven games of running back Christian McCaffrey’s NFL career, I’d go with a 3-yard gain in the Carolina Panthers’ 17-3 loss to Chicago last week.

On second and 8 from Chicago’s 31, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton dropped back, saw nothing downfield that he liked and instead threw a swing pass to McCaffrey in the right flat.

Newton overthrew the ball, though, and it looked for a second like it would sail out of bounds. Instead, McCaffrey leaped high to make a spectacular catch with his right hand, bringing the ball down without ever using his left.

Now it looked like a potentially big play, and the Bears crowd gasped in involuntary appreciation because of the grab. But instead, McCaffrey tried an inside move that fooled no one, and he was brought down by the first Chicago tackler he faced.

Bottom line: The play looked promising, it had a touch of greatness – and it resulted in only 3 yards.

This has been McCaffrey in a nutshell so far. He’s been an “almost” kind of player – almost breaking this long run, almost taking that one for 40 yards, almost making a game-changing play against Philadelphia on the Panthers’ last offensive play if Newton hadn’t fired the ball into the dirt.

McCaffrey, the No. 8 overall pick in the 2017 draft, has been far more effective than fellow Panthers rookie Curtis Samuel and his numbers stack up favorably with most NFL rookies around the league.

But McCaffrey is also averaging only 2.5 yards per rush and 7.5 yards per reception. He has touched the ball 89 times on plays from scrimmage, and he has only had one play of longer than 20 yards on those touches (a 37-yard reception). He doesn’t have a running play of more than 11 yards yet. He has scored twice, both on short passes.

“Nobody’s more critical of me than me,” McCaffrey said this week. “I have a lot to get better on.”

‘You’ve got to be patient’

Has McCaffrey been terrible? No. Has he been incredible? No.

I’d say McCaffrey has been a lot like a movie you anticipated for a year, saw the trailer for three months ago and then finally went to the theater to see yesterday. Then you came out into the bright lights and someone asked you how it was and you said, semi-enthusiastically: “Pretty good.”

And McCaffrey has been pretty good. At his current pace, he will catch 101 passes this season. He has a shot at both the all-time league record for most receptions by a rookie (Anquan Boldin had 101 in 2003) and all-time receptions by any running back (Matt Forte had 102 in 2014). He may break the Panthers’ records for catches and receiving yards by a running back before October ends.

But he also has been sent up the middle too many times for a lot of 1-yard runs, banging his head into a wall of 300-pound defensive linemen. He has too often been brought down by the first tackler in space, and in general he has not shown great ability to gain a lot of yards after contact.

None of that is uncommon for a rookie, but remember this is the rookie that veteran Jonathan Stewart proclaimed in training camp could not be guarded one-on-one on pass routes by anyone in the NFL.

As for the big plays: “You’ve got to be patient, you know,” McCaffrey said. “Big plays will come. ... Let the game come to you. You can’t press. You can’t try to make something crazy there when nothing’s there. You’ve got to keep pushing.”

‘Throwing it out the door’

Coach Ron Rivera floated the idea this week that maybe the Panthers needed to simplify some of their offense after scoring only three points against Chicago. Don’t do it on McCaffrey’s account, though, the running back said.

“I can handle it,” McCaffrey said of his heavy workload.

“I’ve had to learn a good amount, that’s for sure,” McCaffrey added. “A few positions on offense and some special teams stuff (since McCaffrey also is Carolina’s primary punt returner). ... It’s something I’m not mad about. The more I know, the more I can do and the more I can play.”

As for those first seven games, McCaffrey would like to remind you that the Panthers are 4-3, not 0-7. But then again, he said: “Right now we’re taking the past and throwing it out the door and looking to this week.”

So what needs to change this week, when Carolina plays at Tampa Bay Sunday at 1 p.m.? A few things.

The “McCaffrey up the middle” play has to be saved for rare occasions and not be a staple of offensive coordinator Mike Shula’s package. But McCaffrey has to play better, too – he has to break more tackles and show more of the sort of elusiveness that made him a top-10 draft pick in the first place. And Newton has to hit him in stride more, giving McCaffrey the best chance to make a big play on the run.

I think all that will eventually happen. No. 22 can play.

But for the Panthers’ sake, sooner rather than later would be mighty helpful.