Scott Fowler

Did Christian McCaffrey just finish the best season any Panthers RB has ever had?

Although it was overshadowed by the seven-game losing streak that killed the Carolina Panthers’ season, running back Christian McCaffrey just finished an extraordinary year.

In fact, I’m going to pronounce it as the best season a running back has ever had in the Panthers’ 24-year history. McCaffrey set all sorts of team and NFL records, stayed healthy despite an enormous workload and in my opinion was this team’s Most Valuable Player on offense (Luke Kuechly would be the defensive MVP).

But McCaffrey, still only 22 years old, wants more. One of the things he specifically would like to do in 2019? Become a team captain. The offense will lose one, given center Ryan Kalil’s retirement, and McCaffrey believes that in his third season he will be prepared to fill that void.

“Definitely,” McCaffrey said when I asked him in New Orleans following Carolina’s final game about his interest in a possible captainship. “I feel extremely ready. ... Eventually, followers turn into leaders. I had great guys in front of me to learn from. … And all those little details, I’d like to carry on.”

Cam Newton became a team captain in his third season, so McCaffrey would be following a similar course if teammates elect him to the role next year. Before that decision is made in late August, though, it’s also fair to wonder if the Panthers are going to ask McCaffrey to shoulder the same sort of workload in 2019.

‘I love playing ball’

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Carolina running back Christian McCaffrey just set a franchise record for yards from scrimmage in 2018, and there should be far more to come. His current age matches his uniform number (22). David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

In 2018, McCaffrey played 100 percent of the Panthers’ offensive snaps in eight of 16 games and 91.3 percent for the season, even though he only played a single series in the season finale.

The Panthers employed a good backup running back in C.J. Anderson for much of the season, but offensive coordinator Norv Turner hardly ever used him. Anderson finally was released — he wasn’t very happy with the situation, and made that clear — and he will be headed to the playoffs after rushing for 167 and 132 yards in his two games with the L.A. Rams.

I understand how dynamic of a weapon McCaffrey is, but I also thought Carolina made a mistake in basically never getting Anderson on the field. It seemed like McCaffrey surely could benefit from a few plays off occasionally on a long drive. Running backs traditionally have a shorter shelf life than most NFL players because of the pounding they take. Coach Ron Rivera has hinted that the team will try to lessen McCaffrey’s workload a bit next season, and it would be wise to do so.

McCaffrey, however, doesn’t like to hear that. Said McCaffrey: “I love playing football and I train to be ready to play every play. ... Look at a guy like Adrian Peterson. He’s been playing at a high level forever. What matters is taking care of your body. … That’s why I do all the stuff I do outside the field because I love playing ball.”

Peterson, 33, just completed his eighth 1,000-yard rushing season. McCaffrey just finished his first. He had 1,098 yards rushing and 867 more receiving in 2018. The combined 1,965 yards were a franchise record for yards from scrimmage. McCaffrey would have hit 2,000 except for the fact the Panthers used him only briefly in the meaningless season finale against New Orleans.

Among best seasons ever

How did that year compare to the other best running back single seasons in Carolina history? Let’s take a look at McCaffrey’s year and the other top three contenders, in reverse order of how significant I think the season was:

4. Jonathan Stewart, 2009. 1,133 rushing yards, 11 total TDs, 139 receiving yards. The Panthers’ all-time rushing leader, Stewart’s best year came while playing part-time with DeAngelo Williams — the other half of the “Double Trouble” combo.

3. Stephen Davis, 2003. 1,444 rushing yards, eight total TDs, 159 receiving yards. Davis was a battering ram with some speed when healthy. This was Davis’s only big season with the Panthers, but it helped propel the team to the Super Bowl.

2. DeAngelo Williams, 2008. 1,515 rushing yards, 20 total TDs, 121 receiving yards. Williams went on a scoring binge throughout this incredible season. In his eight other years with the Panthers, Williams never scored more than seven TDs in a single year.

1. Christian McCaffrey, 2018. 1,098 rushing yards, 14 total TDs (including his one TD pass), 867 receiving yards. McCaffrey is a hybrid back whose effectiveness as a receiver means that about a third of his touches come in the passing game. He broke the NFL’s single-season record for most receptions by a running back (107) in 2018.

Emergency quarterback

McCaffrey is a great athlete. We all know that, and likely most of you know that his father, Ed, was a 13-year NFL wide receiver. What isn’t as commonly known is that McCaffrey was basically the Panthers’ emergency quarterback all season. Only when McCaffrey started warming up on the sideline against New Orleans — “getting the wing loose,” as he called it later — did this detail surface.

Rivera said after the game that if Panthers quarterback Garrett Gilbert had been hurt in the final quarter that instead of McCaffrey playing QB the team would have just punted on first down.

“He didn’t mean that,” McCaffrey countered with a laugh. “Whatever they called, it wouldn’t have been a punt. I would have been upset.”

McCaffrey said he actually has a small number of offensive plays that he has repped in practice as the quarterback. “I knew from the jump pretty early in the season that I was going to have to go in (at quarterback) if anything happened,” McCaffrey said. “We kind of had a set group of plays we would run.”

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Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey says he’ll balance rest and work in the offseason to ensure growth between Year 2 and Year 3. Marcel Louis-Jacques mlouisjacques@charlotteobserver.com

It never came to that — although McCaffrey did throw a 50-yard touchdown pass on his one pass of the season. But it’s still possible McCaffrey has one more cool opportunity in front of him — his first Pro Bowl.

“I wouldn’t turn that down,” said McCaffrey, who is the second alternate for the game in a loaded NFC running back field.

Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley were selected for the game, and Alvin Kamara was the first alternate. But you can’t play in the Pro Bowl if you’re going to the Super Bowl, so that will likely take one of those four guys out. And there are so often late substitutions at the skill positions in the Pro Bowl that McCaffrey’s chance of playing in the Jan. 27 game is probably at least 50-50.

As for his offseason, he will mostly be back home in Colorado, McCaffrey said. He likes to train at a higher altitude, figuring it helps his endurance. And in terms of grading this past overall season, McCaffrey said: “I definitely took a big step, and I was happy with that. But there’s still a lot of work to be done. I’m going to be ready to roll next year.”

Five significant Christian McCaffrey stats in 2018

Most catches in a season by an NFL running back (107)

Most catches, regardless of position, by any Panthers player in a season (107)

Most yards from scrimmage by a Panthers player in a season (1,965)

First NFL player to tally at least 50 rushing yards and 50 receiving yards in five consecutive games.

Joined Herschel Walker and Alvin Kamara as the only three players to gain at least 1,500 rushing yards and 1,500 receiving yards in their first two NFL seasons.

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also hosted the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named the best podcast of the year in 2018.
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