Because Christian McCaffrey is a non-traditional running back (i.e. a white one, you might as well just say it), there is an irresistible compulsion to compare him to other backs when attempting to describe his versatility as a runner, receiver and return man.
Coach Ron Rivera threw a few names out there last night, mentioning Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles, and Brian Westbrook with a little LeSean McCoy mixed in.
But when it was General Manager Dave Gettleman’s turn, he put McCaffrey in the same answer with a Hall-of-Famer while vouching for McCaffrey’s abilities to be a bell-cow back.
“It doesn’t happen very often,” Gettleman said. “The best tackle-box runner I’ve ever seen is Curtis Martin out of Pitt. Christian is right there with him. Running in that tackle box takes unique vision and unique quickness, and he’s got it. Curtis Martin had it, and he had a great career – a Hall of Fame career – and this kid’s got those kind of skills.”
Martin ran for 14,101 yards in 11 seasons, fourth on the all-time list before heading to Canton.
That’s a high bar to set for a guy who doesn’t walk into an immediate starting job (the Panthers just gave veteran Jonathan Stewart a one-year contract extension this offseason). But they made it clear they see McCaffrey having an immediate impact for them this season.
“You saw him do everything – line up as the tailback, line up as the halfback, line up as the quarterback in the Wildcat, motion out and run a wheel route, return kicks,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “This is a guy who you can get the ball in his hands many different ways and quickly.”
Now how they’re able to do that is the next question. The Panthers would have preferred Leonard Fournette, primarily because he fits everything they already do as an offense. McCaffrey is, to put it simply, a finesse player dropped into the middle of a power and play-action offense. A Swiss-Army knife in a sledgehammer offense. Not only do they not have a similar player, they don’t have many of the plays with which to capitalize on McCaffrey’s skills.
Creating those plays, and installing them in an offense which won’t have its quarterback until training camp (while Cam Newton mends from shoulder surgery) is going to be a challenge for the coaching staff which has been talking about “evolving” all offseason.