What truly defines a great running back? Nowadays, it’s who can top 1,000 yards rushing in a season. However, back when, it used to be who brought more to the table than legs, power, and speed. Think of some of the great backs that we have had the luxury of seeing in person or on video. One that comes to mind for me is Roger Craig of the San Francisco 49ers. He was way ahead of his time and the closest we might come to his greatness is Christian McCaffrey of the Carolina Panthers.
In 1985, Craig put on one of the best displays ever by a running back. For him, gaining 1,000 yards rushing just wasn’t enough, Craig wanted to do more. So, he padded his stats with 92 receptions for 1,016 yards. Yes, you read that correctly. Roger Craig was Marshall Faulk well before he ever hit the NFL.
But who’s to say it can’t happen again?
The Carolina Panthers may have their own Craig in the form of Christian McCaffrey. In his rookie season in 2017, the former Stanford standout rushed for 435 yards on 117 carries while averaging 3.7 yards per attempt. To add more to his role, McCaffrey caught 80 passes for 651 yards. While that’s nowhere near the production of Craig, he’s on pace to get those goals.
Just a week ago, Cam Newton took a bit of a hit from one of his former teammates when Kelvin Benjamin said the Newton is not an accurate passer. Well, no one is Aaron Rodgers but as far as the chemistry between McCaffrey and Newton goes, Newton is enough. Think about the era in which Roger Craig played in. The ’80s were all about tough defense and with Craig able to rush and catch for 1000+ yards, it proves how great of a season he had.
Also, you can take a look at the players he had surrounding him. There was Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, and Dwight Clark. But this is where the similarities between the Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers are so similar. The 49ers won with defense, much like the Panthers. And while Newton is no Montana, he still brings that elite status to the table. But many will point to the presence of Rice and say the Panthers have no one equal to his skills. Well, the truth is, Rice was just a rookie and finished the season with just 49 receptions.
The Carolina Panthers will rely on McCaffrey more in 2018 than they did in 2017. With the departure of Jonathan Stewart, McCaffrey will see more than 117 carries out the backfield. While Newton will take his fair share of runs, it will be the second-year player who will become the featured back. No, he’s not as shifty as Faulk but he’s as brutal and strong as Craig was.
In that magical ’85 season, Craig averaged 4.9 yards per attempt and 11.0 yards per reception. In 2017, McCaffrey averaged 3.7 yards per attempt and 8.1 per catch. Those numbers will increase with D.J. Moore now onboard and Greg Olsen healthy. But can Christian McCaffrey handle the workload? Yes. In college, he rushed the ball 592 times in two seasons while catching 82 passes in that same span. He has the motor and stamina.
What may work in the Panthers and Christian McCaffrey’s favor is their schedule. The Panthers will play 14 games against teams that gave up 100+ yards on the ground. The receiving yards will be there for Christian.
In an era where running backs are applauded for doing very little, McCaffrey should have his sights on being mentioned with some of the best that has ever played the position. Coming out of college, many expected a learning curve for the rookie. While he had to play the backup role to Stewart, McCaffrey did enough to turn a few heads in 2017. In order for the Panthers to get back to their Super Bowl level, the second-year pro will have to channel his inner Roger Craig. It may be a long shot, but it’s one that can be obtained.