Christian McCaffrey For MVP? A study in versatility

Some people are saying that Christian McCaffrey should be the MVP of the league this year. I completely understand why, because he is without a doubt the heart of the Carolina Panthers offense. The face of the franchise, and the star of both their run game and their passing game.

Every NFL head coach and offensive coordinator would love to have him, and every defensive coordinator hates him – however he isn’t unstoppable.

In Week 2 the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense stifled him – and thus the Panthers offense, more or less. McCaffrey rushed 16 times for just 37 yards and was limited to a season-low two receptions for a further 16 yards.

Todd Bowles, the Tampa Bay defensive coordinator, was the clear MVP of the Thursday Night matchup, holding the Panthers to just 14-points, their lowest total of the year. It is no coincidence that when Run CMC has his least successful week, his team did the same, especially because Cam Newton was banged up.

This week, Carolina travelled to London to try and get their revenge, after missing out on a last-ditch attempt to score, in which they tried to run a fake ‘Philly Special’ with McCaffrey getting tackled out of bounds just a couple of yards from the pylon, and took the loss in the final moments.

In Week 6 it was a different result, and Christian McCaffrey scored two touchdowns, making it one of those games that fantasy players and Carolina fans alike will see as being great – and he was voted the man of the match, as was announced in the stadium to a roaring cheer – but once again he was pretty unproductive in actual yardage.

There’s technically a disclaimer for that one – the Panthers offense basically only played on a 40-yard field, so the field position actually meant that they didn’t have to produce many yards – but the reality is that the production wasn’t there for the star running back, the Buccaneers really did manage to limit him again.

But…

 

This article is looking at the ‘but’ with Christian McCaffrey and his impact on this team.

I don’t think that a running back is going to win the MVP this year, although if one were to do so it would have to be CMC, and the reason for that is the subject of this piece – let’s answer the question: What makes Christian McCaffrey so valuable?

While the Buccaneers are an incredibly helpful way of examining my hypothesis, we’ll look at multiple different parts of his game, across various weeks. I will, however list what I believe before I take a look at each of the three sections of this triple threat superstar [yeah you thought I’d say dual-threat didn’t you].

  1. His (constantly increasing) ability to run the football.
  2. His (constantly astonishing) ability in the passing game.
  3. The attention he draws and impact on the rest of the offense.

Offensive coordinator Norv Turner has the most fun job in the world right now. He’s tasked with scheming around Christian McCaffrey with absolutely zero limitation on usage or touches (he leads the league with 162, 21 more than Leonard Fournette in second) – so let’s take a look at what McCaffrey gives him to work with, in all three of the aforementioned sections.

The Run Game

Let’s start from the top, he’s a running back first and foremost, and he’s leading the entire league in rushing yards, with 618 through the first six weeks, putting him on pace for 1,648 on the season.

Tampa Bay has been able to keep a lid on McCaffrey’s yardage, as we’ll look at later, but in games that aren’t against the Bucs, and Todd Bowles, he is averaging 138 yards per game (he’d be on pace for an absurd 2,200 yards) on the ground alone. The yardage has been impressive, but it should be noted that even with a much higher workload than last season [paced to receive an extra 120 carries than 2018] his yards per carry is still the same.

The 220-attempt season of last year seemed amazing and unlikely to repeat in terms of efficiency, with his five yards per carry being tied with Saquon Barkley for ninth in the league, but right now he still averages 4.9 yards per attempt, and that number would be significantly higher if he hadn’t spent two whole weeks getting stuffed by Tampa.

The efficiency of McCaffrey combines elusiveness with good blocking, smart usage and play design. Although he doesn’t break many tackles – which he does so just once every 14 rushes – he is great at avoiding would-be tacklers for as long as possible, and then grinding for every yard he can.

Play calling preferences like outside zone runs have become less defined, to allow the offense to attack all of the defense, and a bulked-up 205 lbs CMC can do damage between the tackles as well as around the edge. In his first two seasons, there would have been very limited inside zone or dive calls, but now they are a staple of their short-yardage offense and on the goal line.

As shown on this play from the Week 4 game in Houston, however, a play designed to try and gain 3-5 yards isn’t limited to doing so with the elusive and wriggling running back driving for extra yardage. This play perfectly demonstrates the growth in McCaffrey’s game this season, and it has made him a significantly more effective running back, while also helping to keep him on the field for over 90% of the team’s snaps.

Even though he is now more versatile and can grind for those hard yards, getting him out into space is still the number one priority, which we will talk about in the receiving element of his game too. That being said, outside zone runs and toss plays will always be the bread and butter of his, due to his ability to cut and avoid defenders, combined with speed and quickness around the edge.

Literally two plays later in the same game, Norv Turner dialled up a classic McCaffrey outside run, with the left tackle taking his end out of the play and everybody else trying to create a wall for their halfback to get outside for a solid gain.

As well as being able to run fast when your line gives you a great lane to run in, this play does also give us a taste of the soon-to-be-infamous CMC stiff arm. The Panthers running back doesn’t like to go down without a fight, and is averaging 2.2 yards after contact per attempt, which opposition defenders may even think sounds a bit low.

Oh, and one more thing. It is very easy to forget that when the blocking lines up correctly, McCaffrey is no slouch as a one-cut back when needed, and he can turn inside runs into something much more than that, as was demonstrated in Week 5 at home to Jacksonville.

This play combines vision and one-cut ability with his straight-line speed to outrun the defense for an impressive score. The blocking on this play seems to magically open the huge lane but it’s literally just a zone run with solid blocking by the O Line and a wham block on the backside from Greg Olsen which both did its job and held the attention of the final possible linebacker who could have tried to stop the ball carrier. 

One thing I thought was really cool (best seen on the second camera angle) is how Greg Olsen’s pre-snap motion made the defense move over, and rotated the safety directly out of the path of the run play, while also giving him a good angle for his backside block to the side he originally came from.

Not many players in the league are better at running around the outside and receiving out of the backfield than Christian McCaffrey, so the fact that he can also turn a single cut behind a guard into an 85-yard TD run is just unfair. One more thing… Did I forget to mention that the score you just saw was his third of the game. He has been dominant this year, and he still has 10 games to go after his well-earned bye week, which he enters as the leading rusher in the NFL.

The Pass Game – Receiving out of the backfield

Now onto what the Panthers’ face of the franchise is actually best known for – receiving out of the backfield.

Christian McCaffrey was drafted 8th overall in the draft back in 2017, and the reason they paid up for him is because they planned on getting their money’s worth. He has been the benchmark for a 3-down back since he became a starter, and is the epitome of a receiving back.

The reason that I started with the run game first is because it’s too easy to forget about how good he is at that part, but what’s scary is that he might be even better when he gets out of the backfield and makes himself available as a receiver.

One thing that McCaffrey is very good at is exactly that. ‘Making himself available’ when his assignment wasn’t necessarily even supposed to be running a route is something that is difficult for a casual fan to identify as they see it happen in real time. When you see a big pass play, particularly with lots of yardage after the catch – which we will see is a major part of his game – it is difficult to rewind in your head and realise his role in the play was pass protection.

In our first look at this week’s Tampa Bay game you can see exactly what I mean. McCaffrey is in pass protection, helping out, and then once he has identified that he isn’t needed, he leaks out and makes himself available to receive the ball. What happens next is impressive and memorable, but the thing that stuck with me was how when I was at the game I saw him go from pass pro and then transition and release out for the dump off pass.

The terrifying fact is that on plays where you don’t have to deal with McCaffrey, he’ll recognise that you’re not prepared to and he’ll punish you for it. Many teams in the NFL employ a quarterback spy (someone dedicated to making sure the QB can’t scramble, while also following his eyes and helping underneath), but now they might need to do the same for a running back. Usually if your assignment stays in to block you would immediately back off and ‘find work’ elsewhere, this may not be the best course of action for facing McCaffrey, as he can evidently do real damage when he gets into open space.

This is a more standard running back route out of the backfield, a table route – definitely one of the most effective routes that the Panthers give him to run. This play shows so many different elements of the Panthers offense, it is perfect. First you have the motion from DJ Moore, this confirms that it is man coverage and also empties out the flats to the right, you then run the table route out into the flats and throw it early to get it in McCaffrey’s hands quickly, and give him time to get his eyes to the MLB who’s got the unenviable task of trying to make an open-field tackle on one of the slipperiest players in the country. As you’d expect, what looked like a two-yard gain turned into an impressive first-down and he almost broke free from three tacklers in one play.

Plays like this are nothing new to Panthers fans, or McCaffrey fantasy owners, and his stats back it up. With an average depth of target lesser than one yard, and only 2 yards before the catch on the season – yeah, he has 305 receiving yards of which 303 came after the catch – it is clear to see that getting the ball to him close to or even behind the line of scrimmage is incredibly productive, and he is averaging 8.7 yards after the catch per reception.

McCaffrey also gets some work in the screen game, which helps to combine his ability in both the run and passing game, while also keeping the defense guessing. The Panthers offensive line is pretty comfortable getting out in front of him and Turner can use these plays for longer yardage situations, just like this 2nd and 8 which he picked up with ease.

McCaffrey’s ability to very naturally and quickly navigate his blocks, while also constantly looking for the best angle to break away from them, makes the screen game really strong, so really he is comfortable in both open space and in traffic, making him the perfect receiving back.

His catching speaks for itself – with 1 drop over his last 22 games – and he has good route running, which allows him to absolutely embarrass linebackers who have to cover him. He’s actually so good at route running they can use him as a receiver in five-wide and he’s literally better than the average receiver in the league.

On this play, McCaffrey does exactly that. He lines up in the tight slot, as the number 3 receiver to the field side, and he runs a quick and nuanced route, absolutely killing the linebacker. His route is a five-yard in, which isn’t exactly a ‘can’t cover me’ route to give someone but he makes it work – what you might not notice at first is that he actually runs it as a double-move. He runs a hitch, and then after he appears to sit down on that route, and the linebacker bites, he breaks for the in route, and gets enough separation to get in for a touchdown.

There are so few running backs in the NFL that are so subtle, smart and effective at running routes, and this score was manufactured out of that brilliant and nuanced route. Myles Jack is a solid coverage linebacker, but he got outsmarted on this one straight up.
It doesn’t seem anywhere as exciting as some of the crazy stuff he’s done this year, to most – but this is my favourite McCaffrey play of the whole season, so far.

It doesn’t look exciting compared to some of the other stuff we have looked at so far, but trust me when I say this play is the height of CMC’s powers on full display.

The Pass Game – More than just a stat line

And now we find ourselves looking back at Week 6, in London. McCaffrey only gained 57 yards from scrimmage in the game, just like in Week 2 against the same defense where he only earned 53. Touchdowns aside (in Week 6 the defense gave their guys insane field position and McCaffrey made it count when the chances were there) he still had a huge impact in this game, which resulted in a win for Carolina.

The reason that Todd Bowles has stopped CMC from continuing his dominance is because that is his entire game plan. They want to stop McCaffrey more than they want to do anything else, because they know that he is their star.

Here’s the problem though, stopping McCaffrey is great, but it allows for the weakness behind that stout underneath defense to be exposed, and the receivers and quarterback can do damage if you don’t get pressure. This is half because of the number of people who step up and play the box to stop McCaffrey and partially just because when you rely on man coverage you are much more easily exposed if it goes wrong.
In terms of loading the box and being aggressive, it isn’t just for McCaffrey – they stack the box at the second highest rate in the whole league at 39% of the time, second only to Atlanta – but it was essential to stopping the Panthers. Quick one here if you like stats, interestingly, the Buccaneers are actually giving up 0.2 more yards per carry (2.9 to 3.1) when stacking the box with 8 or more defenders.

Todd Bowles has actually apparently said that it was probably more difficult to prepare for the second match against Carolina, as it is harder to plan for Kyle Allen (who is less of an individual threat but uses his weapons well) and Christian McCaffrey than it is to plan for Cam Newton and Christian McCaffrey. The simple reason for this is because they are great against the run, which is more of a strength for Cam than his throwing. When you stop the run, you also neuter Newton.
Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh even said after this week’s loss: “I think we understand what they want to do against us [use McCaffrey]… but we’ve got to find ways to get after the quarterback, as well.”

This is where it gets down to the fun stuff. The impact that the running back has when he doesn’t get the ball.  

For a start, there’s pass protection, which we already looked at earlier, he’s aware and comfortable helping out, but can also release and have a delayed availability as a checkdown for the QB – reminder his average depth of target is less than one yard – and can pick up cheap yards that way.
What people need to understand though is that his impact doesn’t even need to involve what he’s actually doing, it is the defensive effort to stop him, often, that can create opportunities for his teammates.

This play from the first time that the Buccaneers faced Carolina is a great example of the biggest benefactor of when teams are able to stop Christian McCaffrey, Greg Olsen, getting open on some play action. The 34-year old tight end is a very talented and experienced player of his own fruition, but when Tampa Bay locked CMac up in Week 2, Olsen put up 110 yards on 9 receptions.

This play in particular was a simple inside zone action with outside comebacks and an intermediate crossing route for the TE. The linebackers are reading the run, they’re geared in on the star running back, and the play call itself is a Cover 1. In this single-high man coverage (which the Buccaneers ran several times in this game), they rush five and then have three defensive backs and three linebackers to cover the routes that come their way. On this play, they have three linebackers to stop McCaffrey and Greg Olsen between them. Watch the play again.
The linebacker who is specifically assigned to Olsen is doing his best, but it’s a crossing route against man coverage, so the trailing LB needs help – and he doesn’t get any because the other two are busy. The two remaining linebackers are both staring at the running back. Even once the play action is over, and he sets down in pass protection, there is more attention on him when he’s blocking than the tight end wo’s running down the field.

Every time that I saw a robber coverage (where a spare defender helps to take away a dangerous route in a double team) from the Bucs, they always help to make sure McCaffrey is covered. On this play it turned in a 33-yard gain.

Once again this is such a simple play design that works so perfectly because the Tampa defense is so sold on stopping one player. This play is nothing more than a Flat-7 concept with a clear-out route from the wide receiver. McCaffrey runs the table/flat route we spoke about earlier, and the linebacker absolutely busts to go and stop it, leaving a huge amount of space for – guess who – Greg Olsen to snag a freebie for 16-yards in the middle of the 99-yard touchdown drive which broke the spirits of Tampa Bay.

After the game, Bruce Arians said that this drive was ‘a huge part of the game’ and the simple fact is that Norv Turner and the Panthers offense was able to do it off the back of knowing exactly what the game plan was going to be.

After the win, Head Coach Ron Rivera said quite simply: “Again, they focused on Christian. Christian wasn’t going to beat them, that’s fine. The other guys around him were able to make plays, I think that’s what led to the victory.”

It’s easy to give credit to Bowles for keeping the best player on the opposition quiet (in terms of yardage), but I think that what is most important is how the Carolina game plan was built with the knowledge that they could use said player sparingly and still get it done.

The Panthers won in London, 37-26, and while McCaffrey did contribute 12 points, it was the amount of attention that was used on him that facilitated quarterback Kyle Allen throwing for 230 yards and a pair of scores.

It’s more than deserved that people are recognising that McCaffrey is the real deal, and people calling him an MVP candidate are – while maybe a bit over the top – correct in the fact that he is one of the most impactful players in the league. One of the most versatile players on the planet, it doesn’t matter if he runs it, or catches it, or neither… No matter what the play call is or who is lined up in front of him – or playing quarterback beside him – Christian McCaffrey will always be making things ten times harder for his opponents.

Tyler Arthur

NFL Film and Prospect Analyst

A graduated Journalism student, Tyler also writes for Read American Football and Gridiron Hub. He played Wide Receiver and eventually Quarterback for his university team at DMU, and is now using his knowledge and passion for learning to dive deeper into the analysis of X’s and O’s in the NFL. 

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