Now that is what everyone wants from Christian McCaffrey — including McCaffrey himself.
The second-year running back blasted through the line of scrimmage like a rocket for a 71-yard rushing touchdown on the second play from scrimmage for the Carolina Panthers Friday night in their 27-20 home exhibition victory over Miami.
And to emphasize how different that was from McCaffrey’s rookie year, consider that on average it took him 19 carries to reach 71 rushing yards in 2017.
The 71-yard burst came on an inside run, too. Is the 5-11, 205-pound McCaffrey starting to answer questions about whether he can run between the tackles consistently?
“I hope so, man,” McCaffrey said after the game. “I’m just here to play ball, not answer anybody’s questions.”
Quarterback Cam Newton had praise for McCaffrey afterward and high hopes for the duo’s future together. Said Newton: “He’s a prime-time player that you’ve just got to find ways to get him the football. … He can have certain plays ... in a game and he’s just better than the defender. And then also he’s extremely physical, and I don’t think he gets that much credit for that…. I have to make sure and find ways to get him the football — and give him an accurate ball so he can do something with it.”
McCaffrey’s rookie season certainly wasn’t a disappointment. He caught 80 passes and set lots of Panthers records for catches by a running back. But the season wasn’t all it could have been, either.
New Orleans rookie running back Alvin Kamara outdid McCaffrey, having the season that many thought McCaffrey might have. Kamara was slightly more explosive, slightly more productive — slightly more everything, really, as he swept to Offensive Rookie of the Year honors while becoming a key cog on a Saints team that beat Carolina three times in three tries.
McCaffrey averaged a pedestrian 3.7 yards per carry in 2017, often going down when the first tackler banged into him. Now you can’t judge too much on preseason, but those six or seven pounds of muscle McCaffrey put on has seemed to help him elude or run through that first tackler.
Even if you take out his 71-yarder Friday night, McCaffrey’s eight other touches (four runs, four receptions) went for 49 yards.
Of the Panthers’ 186 first-half yards, McCaffrey had a hand in 120 of them, or 65 percent. McCaffrey did have a third-down drop of a short Newton pass that would have gone for a first down, but he also saved Newton on another ball that was thrown behind him.
“The mistakes we made are easy changes,” McCaffrey said. “We just have to be consistent enough to change it.”
On the touchdown, McCaffrey had beautiful blocking. He was led by offensive guard Greg Van Roten, who pulled from the left side to the right. Everyone else made a good block, too, and McCaffrey sped through the line, broke one arm tackle and then showed that he had the speed to outrun the entire Dolphins secondary.
Said McCaffrey: “I saw a heck of a gap. The offensive line did a great job…. The tight ends and Alex (Armah, the fullback) did a great job on the block. It’s just my job to hit the hole, find the crease and go. It was a great play.”
It was the sort of play McCaffrey just didn’t make a lot last year. The 10-yard gains on receptions came in bunches, but he never had a run or a catch of more than 40 yards in 16 regular-season games. (He did have a 56-yard touchdown reception in the Panthers’ season-ending playoff loss to New Orleans).
New offensive coordinator Norv Turner is known for using his lead back very liberally. Panthers coach Ron Rivera raised eyebrows early in training camp when he proclaimed that McCaffrey might get 25 to 30 touches per game.
I don’t think it will end up being quite that high, but there’s no doubt McCaffrey is going to get the ball a lot.
As McCaffrey said on the day the Panthers reported to Spartanburg in late July about his comfort level in Year 2 vs. Year 1: “It’s like learning how to drive a car and actually driving the car.”
On Friday night, the car was purring, giving rise to the idea that the road McCaffrey travels this season may be a lot more fun to drive.