Scott Fowler

Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey already bettering his rookie season. What’s next?

Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey had 14 catches against Atlanta Sunday, tying a 13-year-old team record set by Steve Smith. McCaffrey currently ranks second in the NFL in receptions.
Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey had 14 catches against Atlanta Sunday, tying a 13-year-old team record set by Steve Smith. McCaffrey currently ranks second in the NFL in receptions. AP

Running back Christian McCaffrey did something his father never did last Sunday – and something that only one other Carolina Panther ever accomplished.

McCaffrey’s 14 receptions were four more than his father – 13-year NFL wide receiver Ed McCaffrey – ever had in a single game. And in 24 Carolina Panthers seasons, only receiver Steve Smith has ever matched that total.

So what’s next for McCaffrey, whose Carolina Panthers (1-1) host Cincinnati (2-0) on Sunday? His sophomore NFL season is already off to a rollicking start. His 20 receptions over two games ranks second in the NFL to New Orleans wide receiver Michael Thomas (28). McCaffrey hasn’t scored yet in 2018 - he’d like that to be what’s next - but he has otherwise taken to his new No. 1 running back status like a teenager to the video game Fortnite.

“I’m always trying to be the most complete back that I can be,” said McCaffrey, who is averaging 19 touches per game that are split almost evenly between rushes and receptions. “Whatever’s working – that’s what I prefer.”

In Carolina’s 31-24 loss to Atlanta on Sunday, McCaffrey was officially targeted 15 times by quarterback Cam Newton. He caught the first 14. On the 15th he had no chance, as Newton sailed the ball 20 yards out of bounds to avoid a sack. McCaffrey’s 14 receptions helped Newton get to a career-high 32 completions.

Defenses so far this season against Carolina have dropped their linebackers 10-15 yards downfield, hoping to negate the Panthers’ vertical passing game. This has been largely successful, as Carolina has only one pass play over 30 yards in two games. But the downside for defenses is that McCaffrey keeps killing them softly, posting one 8-yard gain after another on dump-down passes.

“Eventually teams will have to start to play that,” McCaffrey said, “and that’s when it all opens up.”

When Smith had his 14 catches for 169 yards in a 13-3 loss to Chicago (and then-Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera) in 2005, he was in the midst of the best receiving season in Panthers history. Smith won the unofficial “triple crown” for NFL receivers that year, leading or tying for the league lead in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns. McCaffrey likes to even be mentioned in the same breath as Smith.

“That’s one of my favorite players,” McCaffrey said. “So that’s definitely a huge honor.”

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Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) greets fans before Carolina’s 31-24 loss to Atlanta Sunday. McCaffrey had 14 catches for 102 yards in the game. John Amis AP

McCaffrey has a long way to go if he’s going to have the sort of career Smith did. But the Panthers’ No. 1 draft choice out of Stanford in 2017 has already shown more elusiveness in his second season compared to his first.

The Cincinnati game will be special for McCaffrey in another way, as the family of the hiker he helped save is scheduled to attend. In March, Dan Smoker Sr. was hiking in Colorado with his 13-year-old grandson Eli. McCaffrey, two of his brothers and a family friend were also hiking. The McCaffrey party saw Smoker fall off a rock and sustain multiple serious injuries. They intervened, with Christian McCaffrey calling 911 and others in the group doing chest compressions and eventually helping get Smoker down the mountain on a stretcher.

“He fought so hard,” McCaffrey said of Smoker. “He came back and he’s with us now. ...They’re an Ohio family, so they’re going to come out to the Cincy game this week.” Some of McCaffrey’s family members also are coming to see the Smokers and the game.

It’s unlikely McCaffrey will have 14 catches again vs. the Bengals or maybe ever again – that’s a hard mark to reach. The 14 catches in a single game are tied for the fourth-most by a running back in NFL history.

But it seems quite possible that McCaffrey’s carries will go up this week. He’s only averaging nine rushes per game so far, even though his average gain has increased by 1.1 yards per carry compared to a season ago.

It’s obvious McCaffrey is more comfortable in the Panthers’ offense and generally on the same page as Newton, who constantly uses the running back he refers to as a “prime time player” as a bailout option. McCaffrey seems much more adept at finding open space and making the first tackler miss now, as he almost always did at Stanford. As McCaffrey said in training camp comparing Year One in the NFL to Year Two: “It’s like learning how to drive a car and actually driving a car.”

Now the Bengals have to gear up to stop McCaffrey. And if they do, maybe that’s when the Panthers hit their first 60-yard pass play of the season.