Analysis: Christian McCaffrey is carrying the Panthers, and may be the NFL MVP

Analysis: Christian McCaffrey is carrying the Panthers, and may be the NFL MVP

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Brendan Marks//The Charlotte Observer) - Ho hum, 237 total yards and three touchdowns.

Nothing to see here, folks.

Nothing except one of the best individual performances by in Carolina Panthers team history. And with the way Christian McCaffrey played Sunday in Carolina’s 34-27 win over Jacksonville — on a day when the franchise honored four new inductees to the Hall of Honor — it was an easy mental exercise to picture the running back one day donning his own blue blazer in a similar ceremony.

It’s not as if these sorts of performances are rare of McCaffrey. He entered Sunday’s game leading the NFL in rushing yards, scrimmage yards, touches, percentage of snaps played ... basically everything you could ask of one player.

Some of that usage is a byproduct of the team’s quarterback situation. With Kyle Allen starting his third consecutive game in place of the injured Cam Newton, who is out indefinitely with a Lisfranc injury in his left foot, the team has leaned on the running game more than it typically would.

But McCaffrey has made outbursts like this the standard rather than the exception. For him to induce any type of how-did-he do-that? play, with expectations already as lofty as they are, takes some darn special stuff.

Or in other words, what happened Sunday.

The dynamic effort began on the team’s first drive, when deep in the red zone, offensive coordinator Norv Turner called McCaffrey’s number. McCaffrey caught the ball short right, seemingly headed out of bounds as a defender neared — until at the last second, he juked and stayed inbounds. Then, after the defender went skating by like the turf had turned to ice, McCaffrey kept churning and picked up a first down.

The next play, he stiff-armed a defender to get around the right edge of the pile.

Then, he flew.

McCaffrey tried hurdling a defender, but was hit in midair and started to flip. He nearly stuck the landing, but instead splayed down on his back in the end zone.

Later in the first quarter, after Eric Reid recovered a fumble that gave the ball to the Panthers (3-2) in Jacksonville territory, Turner went back to McCaffrey. He ran a short route to the middle of the zone, drawing a linebacker in the process — and then doubled back inside to break free. Allen hit him in stride, making it an easy feat for McCaffrey to outrun the linebacker to the goal line.

The only issue with McCaffrey going off like he did?

He was doing it out of necessity.

The rest of the Panthers offense wasn’t exactly functioning all cylinders, nor has it been the past two weeks. Greg Olsen finished without a reception for the first time since 2017, and Allen’s accuracy issues were a constant throughout.

So late in the game, the Panthers had to go back to what they know best.

It was at that point that McCaffrey truly dropped jaws. On Carolina’s first offensive play of the second half, the team faked a reverse to Curtis Samuel and instead handed off to McCaffrey.

Nobody got a hand on him.

The fake to Samuel drew defenders away from McCaffrey, who hit a wide open hole and ran 84 yards to the end zone. It was the longest run in team history, resetting the record just two weeks after McCaffrey’s 76-yard run against Arizona.

Perhaps the only thing he didn’t succeed in was playing quarterback. Turner called a running back pass for him in the fourth quarter, but when he didn’t see an open man after rolling right, he opted to just throw the ball into the ground. He also failed to pick up a critical fourth-and-1 the following play — dropped for a two-yard loss — leaving Carolina empty-handed after one of their better drives of the game.

And late, things turned south for McCaffrey. After constantly churning out yards — oftentimes Carolina’s only source of offense — McCaffrey came out late in the fourth quarter with what appeared to be cramps. After he spoke with trainers, McCaffrey never went back in the game. His backup, Reggie Bonnafon, instead broke a 59-yard run that practically sealed the game at 34-27 — or at least it would have been more likely to had kicker Joey Slye not missed the point-after attempt.

Still, after tying his career-high in yards, McCaffrey was the reason the Panthers were ever in this game against a scrappy Jacksonville team.

The question moving forward is McCaffrey’s health. If he misses any amount of time, this Panthers offense will tank without him.

But if he’s good to go next week when the Panthers head to London, there’s no telling how high his trajectory is.