Christian McCaffrey’s ever-expanding value to Panthers as a RB, receiver ... and QB?

Christian McCaffrey’s ever-expanding value to Panthers as a RB, receiver ... and QB?
(David T. Foster III | Charlotte Observer)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Rick Bonnell//The Charlotte Observer) - Christian McCaffrey established himself as the Carolina Panthers’ feature tailback and often their best slot receiver during his first two NFL seasons.

Now, how about option quarterback?

The Panthers’ chances were slipping away early in the third quarter, trailing 16-3 primarily off their own turnovers. Facing first-and-goal at the 8-yard line, offensive coordinator Norv Turner shifted the backfield so that McCaffrey was in the shotgun behind center and quarterback Cam Newton was functionally the running back.

McCaffrey took the snap, faked the give to Newton, then sprinted straight up the middle, his blockers sealing off Los Angeles Rams to his left and his right. Eight yards later, McCaffrey was in the end zone, essentially untouched.

That was far from McCaffrey’s most challenging carry Sunday in a 30-27 season-opening loss to the Rams. But it looked like the most fun. More of these direct snaps coming?

“I don’t make the calls. It was a good play, well-designed,” McCaffrey said of the first of his two touchdowns. “The offensive line did an unbelievable job all day on those guys. They opened up a heck of a hole, and I hit it.”

The Panthers kept falling back by two or more scores Sunday, and McCaffrey kept tugging them to viability. Seventy-three of McCaffrey’s 209 yards from scrimmage came in the fourth quarter, when the Panthers twice cut 10-point deficits to three.

It took about an hour for McCaffrey to emerge from the training room post-game, and there was a significant bruise below his left underarm. But it’s clear he got the better of the Rams’ physical front seven late.

“I felt good all game. Obviously, teams start wearing down” in the fourth quarter, McCaffrey said. “That’s when you thrive, when other teams start getting tired.”

McCaffrey isn’t particularly big at 5-11 and 205 pounds, but he certainly contributed to the Rams’ defense wearing down. In the first half, he attempted to leap over safety Eric Weddle.

Dangerous as that sounds for McCaffrey, Weddle got all the damage when McCaffrey’s knee hit the side of Weddle’s helmet. Weddle suffered a facial laceration and was carted off the field, later placed in the concussion protocol.

“My knee just clipped him in the head. Hopefully, he’s OK,” said McCaffrey, who checked on Weddle after the game. “I’m a big fan of his, he’s a heck of a football player.”

McCaffrey is evolving into an elite football player a year away from being eligible for the sort of contract extension that would mean generational wealth. NFL running backs get hit so frequently and with such direct force that they often aren’t still in their primes to maximize earning power with a second contract.

The Rams, for instance, made a investment in Todd Gurley, who had severe knee problems last season. Gurley got the big money in advance of that; he was so-so in the first half Sunday but finished with 97 yards on 14 carries.

A good game, but well short of the multi-faceted impact McCaffrey had (128 yards on the ground and 81 more in 10 receptions). He isn’t comfortable with self-promotion, and during his post-game interview, he frequently diverted the conversation to praise for the rebuilt offensive line after Panthers averaged 5.5 yards per rush.

“I thought they did an unbelievable job. That’s a good (defensive) line, and our line has been working extremely hard all preseason,” McCaffrey said.

“I’m proud to be a running back in that group. They make my job easy.”

The Panthers have a brutally quick turnaround, playing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday night at Bank of America Stadium. As tight end Greg Olsen said, “Other than Christian ... offensively, we have a lot to work on.”

Particularly turnovers: Two fumbles, plus a fourth-quarter interception by Newton.

“Obviously, we didn’t win, and we had a lot of self-inflicted wounds,” McCaffrey summarized. “But at the end of the day, we’ve got a lot of fighters. That’s a good sign: A sign of a team that won’t back down. We have a long season ahead of us.

“We can’t sulk about this. We’ve got to learn from it and move on.”