To unlock Panthers passing attack, start with the basics: Run CMC
Each week the Carolina Panthers play in 2018, the Observer will choose a potential game changer — the player most likely to make a huge impact on the game. This week’s choice: Running back Christian McCaffrey
The context: For all the talk about Carolina’s deep passing attack — or lack thereof — or turnovers or inconsistency, there’s one easy way for this Panthers offense to stabilize itself. To self-correct, if you will: Run CMC. McCaffrey, the team’s first pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, was brought in to be a do-everything threat: to run, to catch passes out of the backfield (and increasingly down the field), and to break games open on special teams.
Problem is, he can’t do any of that without the ball in his hands.
What Norv Turner says: “Every game is different, and we’re trying to use all our guys,” offensive coordinator Norv Turner said, “and Christian is getting a lot of attempts right now.”
The statistics: Of anyone on this offense, which features six different players with at least 10 receptions, McCaffrey gets the most consistent usage. He’s had at least 15 touches in each of the Panthers’ first five games, both as Cam Newton’s safety outlet on pass plays and running between the tackles.
So how can someone so heavily relied on still be a breakout candidate against the Eagles this week?
Because for as good as McCaffrey has been, he still isn’t being used regularly enough.
In Carolina’s two losses this year, McCaffrey had eight rushes in each game, for 37 and 20 yards, respectively. That’s just not enough true rushes to keep a defense honest. Of course, ingame circumstances can dictate changing game plans, as coach Ron Rivera said this week. What Ron Rivera says: “I think a big part of it again is, are you winning the battle up front?” Rivera said of trying to establish the run consistently. “Secondly is, what else is working? Do you have a lead, how effective is your passing game? Is it opening up certain avenues? There’s a lot of things we try to consider.
“Last week, the big thing that came into play obviously was being in the hole early.”
Why he matters: Being behind naturally makes teams less in- clined to run. That makes perfect sense. But conversely, don’t successful early runs prevent you from getting behind so badly?
And then there’s the matter of the team’s vertical passing attack. Newton has only completed one pass of more than 20 yards downfield all season — last week’s deep touchdown to Devin Funchess.
But again, doubling down on McCaffrey can help open up some of those shots. If defenses have to stay dedicated to the run, it opens up play-action pass opportunities for Newton and Carolina’s stable of receivers. Solving an issue: Turner has hesitated to use the word ‘decoy’ when referring to McCaffrey in the past, but if it works, well ... hard to say no to the idea.
“Christian’s a big part of what we’re doing,” Turner said, “but we have a lot of guys who can make plays when we need it.”
The point is, McCaffrey’s proven ability to run between the tackles must be a constant in this Carolina offense. He forces defenses not to sit back in their zones, and to truly attack the line of scrimmage.
Maybe the answer to Carolina’s deep-ball deficiencies aren’t ludicrous shots down the field, after all.
Maybe they’re just getting back to basics — getting back to Run CMC.
Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) shakes off New York Giants free safety Curtis Riley (35) in the second half at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, October 7, 2018.