For a league that seemingly abandoned the run for the franchise quarterback a long, long time ago, the NFL is actually full of really talented tailbacks in 2019. The Dallas Cowboys live and die on Ezekiell Elliott’s back, Saquon Barkley is one of the few bright spots in New York, and Josh Jacobs has the Oakland Raiders looking like playoff contenders. Dalvin Cook actually leads the league in rushing, and has the Minnesota Vikings looking respectable, and after a rough start to his career, Leonard Fournette finally looks like a featured back.
But there’s one back who is outplaying all of them, despite facing the steepest odds. His name is Christian McCaffrey, and he’s quietly having a historically brilliant season.
Run CMC: Inside Christian McCaffrey’s Quietly Dominant Season
So far in 2019, Christian McCaffrey has rushed for 881 yards and 10 touchdowns in eight games. That means he’s averaging 110 yards and a score on the ground every Sunday (or Monday/Thursday). He’s on pace for nearly 1,800 rushing yards and 20 scores on the ground, which by itself, is an impressive feat.
But then you factor in his receiving stats as well, and you realize the former Heisman runner up is doing some next-level nonsense. Over the first half of the season, he’s caught 42 passes for 363 yards and three scores. Just for perspective, Amari Cooper has also caught 42 passes this season. Odell Beckham Jr. has only caught 39 passes. And that Antonio Brown fella, well, he’s only really caught L’s this season.
McCaffrey is on pace for 84 catches, 726 receiving yards, and six touchdowns through the air, which would be a totally respectable game for a number two wide receiver, let alone a tailback. We’ve already seen this kind of production through the air from CMC, who averages around 94 catches for 750 yards and six scores as a receiver during his first two seasons in the league. It’s McCaffrey’s success as a rusher that’s new, as he barely scraped 1,000 yards last year.
For the mathematically challenged, Christian McCaffrey is currently on pace for 2,488 all-purpose yards and 26 total touchdowns. That’s only 21 yards short of Chris Johnson’s record for most yards in a single season (2,509), and five scores short of LaDainian Tomlinson’s record for scores in a single campaign (31).
The Problem with Pacing
Obviously, people rarely meet their pace. All it takes is one bad game and the pace takes a hit. Injuries happen, and depending on the outcome of a game, someone’s involvement could increase or decrease dramatically, especially at the tailback position. But with McCaffrey, the great games have happened so frequently that the bad games are actually the anomalies.
In both games against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, McCaffrey was held under 60 scrimmage yards, but in every other game this season, he’s had at least 150. In fact, he has just as many games under 100 scrimmage yards (again, two), as he does with at least 200.
This season, McCaffrey balling out is far more likely than him having a bad game, so if anything, I’d almost speculate that his numbers at the end of the year will be better than his projected total. Risky? Sure. Mathematically sound? Absolutely not. But I do have more than just a gut feeling to base this off of.
Carolina doesn’t exactly have an easy schedule moving forward, but that doesn’t mean they are without some favorable match-ups. Carolina’s remaining opponents include the Green Bay Packers (24th against the run), the Atlanta Falcons (21st against the run), the Washington Redskins (28th against the run), and the Falcons again. The only team in the NFL that has been able to contain McCaffrey is Tampa Bay, who has far and away the NFL’s best run defense, only giving up 78 yards a game.
Even the better teams that Carolina plays, like the Indianapolis Colts, the New Orleans Saints, and Seattle Seahawks, are giving up 100 yards a game to opposing rushing attacks. All McCaffrey really has to do is avoid duds like he had against Tampa Bay, and I don’t see why he can’t easily surpass his pace against the bad defenses. Especially since… he’s really all Carolina has.
The Cam Newton of It All
But here’s the thing with McCaffrey. He’s been doing all of this without Cam Newton. Obviously a tailback is going to get more touches when the starting quarterback is out, but that’s not a secret to the defense. Any defensive coordinator worth his salt is going to focus in on stopping the run and forcing the young, unqualified quarterback to beat you. And teams have been trying to do that to Carolina… unsuccessfully.
Kyle Allen, Cam Newton’s replacement, has been fine-not-good-not-great. After a debut where he tossed for nearly 300 yards and four touchdowns against a questionable Cardinals defense without Patrick Peterson, he’s been so-so. Since that game, he’s averaged about 200 yards, a touchdown, and an interception per game. Not exactly inspirational. However… he’s 4-1 over that period, due largely in part to McCaffrey’s dominance.
Since it looks like McCaffrey is going to have potentially the best rushing season of all time, it’s only fair that he ends up in the MVP conversation, right? After all, who could possibly be more valuable than someone who breaks records?
Well, as I listed in my article from several months ago, the MVP award can be kinda tricky. A tailback needs at least 2,210 all-purpose yards and 24 touchdowns to even be in the conversation, which McCaffrey should soar past with relative ease, but 132 players have had similar numbers without taking home the league’s most prestigious individual award.
The real key here is that the Carolina Panthers make the playoffs. MVPs almost always make the playoffs. The New Orleans Saints were without Drew Brees for a few weeks, didn’t miss a beat, and are looking like the NFC’s best team. It wouldn’t be wise to expect the Carolina Panthers to be able to surpass them in the NFC South, so that just leaves the wildcard.
If the season ended today, they’d be on the outside looking in, as the Seattle Seahawks and Minnesota Vikings are the current wild cards, and the Los Angeles Rams have a leg up on the Panthers.
However, the Rams still play the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are coming alive, the Chicago Bears, who are dangerous on defense, the red hot Baltimore Ravens, the Seattle Seahawks, the Dallas Cowboys, and the undefeated San Francisco 49ers. So barring an incredible turnaround from Jared Goff, you should expect them to fall apart.
The Vikings and Seahawks are both very good, and at any point could switch spots with the 49ers or the Green Bay Packers for first in their division, but the wildcard picture in the NFC is a lot more crowded, and a lot more competitive than the AFC.
As long as the Carolina Panthers keep feeding Christian McCaffrey the ball, not only do they have a chance to make the playoffs, but to add some serious hardware to Run CMC’s trophycase. At the very least, he’s the runaway favorite for offensive player of the year.