Panthers' McCaffrey proving he can be an every-down back
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — If you're still thinking Christian McCaffrey is just a receiving back, it may be time to reconsider.
The Panthers' second-year running back is coming off a perception-changing game on Sunday, rushing for a career-high 184 yards on 28 carries while playing all 67 offensive snaps in a 31-21 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. It was an eye-opening outing for a player who'd never run for more than 66 yards in a game.
McCaffrey is third in the league in rushing, 3 yards behind Dallas' Ezekiel Elliott and San Francisco's Matt Breida entering the team's bye weekend and is averaging 5.9 yards per carry.
While many consider McCaffrey's greatest strength to be his receiving ability — which is not entirely inaccurate given he set a franchise rookie record with 80 receptions last season and he caught 14 passes for 102 yards in a Week 2 loss to the Falcons — he is proving he can carry the load on the ground, too.
The 5-foot-10, 205-pound McCaffrey is motivated to dispel the notion that he can't be an every-down back that can run between the tackles, where he continually gouged the Bengals.
"It definitely bothers me," McCaffrey said of the perception. "But the more and more I've gone through this league, I learned that it's never been about proving anyone wrong or proving anybody right. Just proving myself right."
Panthers coach Ron Rivera has often defended the team's first-round pick in 2017, saying nobody ran between the tackles more in college than McCaffrey.
"His ability to run the ball inside, he doesn't get enough credit for it," Rivera said.
Of course, doing it at Stanford is a lot different than doing it in the NFL where defenders are bigger, faster and stronger. Now it will be up to McCaffrey to prove he can produce consistently as an every-down running back for an entire season, not just one game.
Teammates are confident he can.
"He's obviously not just a receiving back, he's a total running back," Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said. "He shows signs that this is not a fluke, he's been doing this his whole career — collegiately as well as professionally."
Rivera shocked some earlier this offseason when he said it would be "ideal" if the Panthers got McCaffrey 25-30 touches per game, similar to how offensive coordinator Norv Turner used LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego. He had a career-high 30 on Sunday.
McCaffrey's 14 catches the week before might have caught the Bengals off guard. They seemed determined to take him away in the passing game, but couldn't stop him on the ground.
The fact that McCaffrey commands so much attention as a receiver and a runner is the reason the Panthers never took him out of the game.
When he wasn't being used as a ball carrier, he proved to be an effective decoy on all four of Carolina's touchdowns.
On one second-quarter play, Newton dropped back and faked a pass to McCaffrey , drawing defenders in that direction, then threw a screen pass back to the other side of the field which C.J. Anderson caught and took 24 yards for a touchdown.
On Carolina's other three scores, McCaffrey served as a decoy with fake handoffs going his way to distract the defense, including on both of Newton's TD runs .
Panthers center Ryan Kalil said McCaffrey's quickness makes him dangerous — and an ideal player to block for.
"He has great vision and great patience and he knows how to hit those holes," Kalil said. "He has a lot of pride during the week and it obviously paid off."
Said McCaffrey: "I don't think a whole lot as soon as the ball is in my hands. I kind of just try and feel everything out. Once you know where everybody's going, it can kind of slow down for you."
The one area where McCaffrey has struggled is near the goal line.
He's yet to score a touchdown and has had difficulty moving the pile in short-yardage situations. The Panthers are turning more and more to the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Newton to get the ball into the end zone.
But everywhere else, McCaffrey is proving to be hard to stop.
McCaffrey is quick to deflect praise to his makeshift offensive line, which has been forced to play without three starters, including second-team All-Pro right tackle Daryl Williams.
"I think it obviously starts up front," McCaffrey said. "Those guys did an absolute unbelievable job all day getting after their guys and they continue to do it all game long. When we can get in a rhythm running the ball it opens everything up."
More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/tag/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL