CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Big plays defined Christian McCaffrey during his final two seasons at Stanford. The lack of big plays has defined the first seven games of his NFL career for the Carolina Panthers.
But nobody with the Panthers seems concerned.
“The big plays will come,” the eighth pick of the draft said. “Right now it’s just being patient. You’ve got to let the game come to you. You can’t press. You can’t try to make something crazy happen when nothing is there. You’ve just got to keep pushing.”
Perhaps. But after a preseason in which Carolina running back Jonathan Stewart said nobody in the NFL can stop McCaffrey one-on-one, and after a college career in which McCaffrey set the single-season record for all-purpose yards (3,864) in 2015, his first seven NFL games have been underwhelming in terms of overall production and, particularly, big plays.
McCaffrey’s longest run is 11 yards, and he has no rushing touchdowns. His longest catch is 37 yards, and he has only one other game in which he had one for at least 20.
To put that in perspective, Jacksonville’s Leonard Fournette had runs of 75 and 90 yards in his past two games. Those combined 165 yards are 51 more than McCaffrey has (114) on the season. Fournette, the fourth pick of the draft, also has a 28-yard catch.
Kansas City running back Kareem Hunt has had double-digit runs in six of seven games. In three of those games, his longest run was more than 50 yards, and four times he has gone for more than 40.
Christian McCaffrey, an explosive playmaker in college, has been kept under wraps so far with the Panthers, averaging just 2.5 yards per rush and 7.5 yards per catch. Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Hunt, a third-round pick, also has catches of 78 and 37 yards.
Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook, taken in the second round out of Florida State, had three games in which his longest run surpassed 20 yards before he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the fourth game. He also had a catch of 36 yards.
Chicago Bears rookie Tarik Cohen had a 70-yard catch against the Panthers in Sunday’s 17-3 victory. He also has two games in which he had a long run of 36 or more yards.
McCaffrey’s season-high rushing total in a game came in the opener, when he had 47 yards against San Francisco. In the past 15 seasons, the only rookie running backs picked in the top 10 with fewer 20-yard plays than McCaffrey’s two in the first seven games of his rookie season were Cedric Benson (one) and C.J. Spiller (none), according to ESPN Stats & Information.
You can see why critics might say he has been a disappointment as the Panthers (4-3) prepare for Sunday’s NFC South game at Tampa Bay (2-4).
“People are just used to seeing him making the unbelievable play on a consistent basis,” Carolina wide receiver Russell Shepard said. “This is the NFL. He’s playing against a lot of fellow All-Americans, a lot of guys that went first round, a lot of guys are as talented, even more talented than himself.
“The best thing we can do, the best thing he can do, is continue to be patient, and a lot of big plays will come.”
A Running (Back) Total
Number of 20-yard plays from scrimmage in the team’s first seven games by rookie running backs picked in the top 10 since 2001.
SEASON PLAYER, TEAM PLAYS
2016 Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys 9
2007 Adrian Peterson, Vikings 9
2015 Todd Gurley, Rams 8
2005 Ronnie Brown, Dolphins 6
2008 Darren McFadden, Raiders 5
2005 Cadillac Williams, Buccaneers 5
2001 LaDainian Tomlinson, Chargers 5
2012 Trent Richardson, Browns 4
2017 Leonard Fournette, Jaguars 3
2017 Christian McCaffrey, Panthers 2
2006 Reggie Bush, Saints 2
2005 Cedric Benson, Bears 1
2010 C.J. Spiller, Bills 0
It’s not all apples to apples, either. Fournette is averaging 21.7 carries per game. McCaffrey is averaging 6.4, splitting time in the backfield with Stewart.
McCaffrey is also being asked to play more positions than the other rookie. His 44 catches, many from the slot and wide-receiver position, rank first in the league among running backs and fourth overall.
Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown leads the way with 52 catches, followed by Larry Fitzgerald and Jarvis Landry, with 45 each.
“What we ask Christian to do week in and week out, most guys in this league can’t handle that type of workload,” Shepard said. “We’ve just got to be patient with him, grow with him. Us veteran guys just have to put him in better position to be successful.”
Carolina coach Ron Rivera admits that McCaffrey has a larger workload than most rookie backs, between his various roles on offense and duties as a punt returner.
“We shift him. We motion him. We move him around,” Rivera said. “We’ve asked a lot of him, and there is a little bit of a concern that maybe we are doing too much with him.
“One of things we want to make sure we do is [ask], ‘Are we putting him in position to have success, but we are not overusing him or overloading him?'”
That’s one reason Rivera said earlier in the week that the Panthers might simplify the offense in hopes of helping many of the rookies and new additions play faster and make fewer mistakes. He also mentioned overloading second-round pick Curtis Samuel, a slot receiver and running back out of Ohio State who began Sunday’s game in the backfield with McCaffrey.
But McCaffrey’s idea of simplifying and Rivera’s might be different.
“Simplify, in my opinion, is just doing your one-of-11 [role],” McCaffrey said. “You can put in all the plays in the world, but if a guy is not executing it’s not going to work. You can put in one play and execute it a hundred times.
“Simplify, in my opinion, is really just doing your job. Simply do your job.”
Asked directly if he’s being asked to do too much, McCaffrey said, “No. No. I can handle it.”
It’s those on the outside, particularly fantasy football owners, who are put off by McCaffrey’s lack of fireworks.
“Even though he hasn’t had the big plays from a yardage standpoint,” Shepard said, “he’s making a lot of huge plays for us, being able to handle a lot of different packages, being able to do a lot of different things from receiving, running the ball, Wildcat, handling punt return duties.”
Fozzy Whittaker agreed, saying that what McCaffrey is asked to do as a rookie isn’t comparable to what he or other backs had to do in their first seasons, in terms of playing multiple positions. He said in practice alone, McCaffrey is with so many different groups that it makes his head spin.
“The big plays, all that, it’s going to come,” Whittaker said. “Trust me.”
Offensive coordinator Mike Shula predicted that “bigger and better things are to come” when asked how he would answer if somebody said McCaffrey has been a disappointment thus far.
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Shula added that he hasn’t been around players who can do some of the things McCaffrey did against the Bears, even though the back’s longest run was 4 yards and he averaged only 5.1 yards on seven catches.
“I know where we’re at in the season. We want to be better than we are, but he’s one of 11 guys on the field at that time,” Shula said.
Nobody is more critical of McCaffrey’s play than he is. He spends more time in the film room than perhaps any other Carolina player besides middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.
McCaffrey knows there is room for improvement. But he hasn’t panicked about the lack of big plays that used to come regularly at Stanford, where in 17 of 25 games the past two seasons he had more than the 114 yards rushing he has totaled in seven games for the Panthers.
“We have had a lot of big plays, a lot of great plays,” McCaffrey said. “Sometimes a 1-yard gain on third-and-1 is a big play. People take that for granted. It might not be a 7-yard touchdown, but you’ve got to play winning football.”