CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — Before a reporter could go there with Carolina Panthers rookie running back Christian McCaffrey, right guard Trai Turner took it there. Turner rightly figured the discussion would turn to the fact that McCaffrey is among the handful of white players at his position in the NFL.
“Have you seen him run?” Turner asked. “If you’ve seen the guy run, you don’t think about it [his race]. White, black, red, green — I don’t care what color he is. He’s special.”
Nine games into his professional career, McCaffrey has flashed the talent that prompted the Panthers to select him in the top 10 of the 2017 draft. Carolina has steadily put more on McCaffrey within its offense, believing he’ll be a big part of the franchise’s future. Last week, McCaffrey had his best game, scoring his first rushing touchdown.
There’s no doubt about it: Besides being a white running back, McCaffrey is a good running back. His race, though, makes him unique.
Picked eighth overall, the former Stanford All-American became the first white tailback drafted in the first round since Penn State’s John Cappelletti went 11th overall to the Los Angeles Rams in 1974. Besides McCaffrey, Rex Burkhead of the New England Patriots, Danny Woodhead of the Baltimore Ravens and Zach Zenner of the Detroit Lions are the only other white tailbacks on league rosters.
Last season, not one white player was a featured runner on any of the league’s 32 teams. In the past 31 years, only two white running backs have rushed for at least 1,000 yards in a season: Craig James (1985) and Peyton Hillis (2010).
During the run-up to the 2017 draft, Carolina, for obvious reasons, locked in on McCaffrey. As a sophomore at Stanford, McCaffrey broke Barry Sanders’ NCAA single-season record for all-purpose yards.
McCaffrey won player of the year awards and made All-Conference and All-America. He also comes from a strong football family: McCaffrey’s father, Ed, also starred for Stanford and was a longtime, Super Bowl-winning player at wide receiver, another position at which one will find few white players. McCaffrey’s brother, Dylan, was a highly recruited quarterback who’s on scholarship at the University of Michigan.
Still, McCaffrey, in an ironic twist, has had to overcome stereotypes about playing the running back position. To many NFL observers, McCaffrey does not “look” like a running back, although he definitely plays like one, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said.
“He’s a dynamic player,” Newton said. “You can kind of feel the vibe around him. You’ve just got to give him the ball, step back and be in awe, whether it’s in the run game [or] the passing game.”
In Week 9, the versatile player had a key role in the Panthers’ 20-17 victory over the Atlanta Falcons. McCaffrey rushed for 66 yards on 15 carries (a 4.4-yard average) and produced a 4-yard touchdown run off an option pitch from Newton. Often, the Panthers watch McCaffrey similarly dazzle on the practice field.
“He’s a heck of an athlete,” placekicker Graham Gano said. “We saw that coming out of college, and it hasn’t been any different here. He’s also just a hard worker all of the time. He’s always doing something to get better. That’s another big thing that I’ve noticed. Normally, you mostly see that in veterans.
“The rookies … they’re usually the ones coming in and just watching, trying to learn from the vets. But in a good way, he acts like a veteran. He’s very mature as a player. And every time he gets the ball in his hands, you feel like he’s gonna make a play. He does some things with a football you don’t see very often. He’s definitely added a new flavor to our team.”
To this point, McCaffrey has contributed mostly as a receiver out of the backfield. He has 54 receptions for 406 yards (a 7.5-yard average) and two touchdowns, compared with only 183 yards and a 2.9-yard average. But the Panthers, it appears, are planning to give McCaffrey the ball a whole lot more in the running game.
Veteran running back Jonathan Stewart, who lost two fumbles in the first half against the Falcons, is 30 and in his 10th season. Only 21, McCaffrey has proved he’s ready to do more. Let him, Newton said.
“I’m a proponent of seeing how much he can digest before we ease off him,” the Pro Bowl quarterback said. “When the ball’s in his hands, man, that’s a good thing for us on offense.”
McCaffrey gladly will take the work.
“I feel pretty comfortable with everything. I feel good,” he said. “I like to be somebody whose number they can call.”
For the Panthers, McCaffrey is already that. And in the coming weeks and years, he could become a whole lot more.Jason
Reid is the senior NFL writer at The Undefeated. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.