As a three-sport athlete at Valor Christian (Colo.) and eventually during his three years playing football at Stanford, Christian McCaffrey always just wanted to play. He wanted the ball every game, every quarter and every snap..
It’s how he trained, it’s how he studied.
In his second season with the Carolina Panthers, it’s all paying off.
McCaffrey has been on the field for a higher percentage of his team’s snaps than any of the NFL’s 10 most-productive running backs. It’s a title he likely won’t give up this season, considering the Panthers’ recent release of C.J. Anderson.
He’ll get all the work he can handle and that’s just the way he’d like it.
“You’ve got to prepare like you’re going to play every snap,” McCaffrey said. “That’s the way I trained in the offseason, that’s the way I prepare — as if I’m getting the ball every play. It’s all about putting your body in the best position so that you can go out there, but I feel great.”
McCaffrey doesn’t just lead the league’s top running backs in percentage of snaps played — he’s not even in the same stratosphere as the other nine. He has played 96 percent of Carolina’s snaps this season, and the running back closest to matching that is Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott, who has played 89 percent of the Cowboys’ snaps.
The average snap percentage of that aforementioned list of running backs — which includes Todd Gurley, James Conner, Saquon Barkley, Elliott, Kareem Hunt, Melvin Gordon and Alvin Kamara — is 78 percent.
NFL’s top 10 RBs in total yards
|Games||Snaps||Snap %||Touches||Usage %||Total Yards|
|Todd Gurley, LAR||10||567||85%||238||42%||1,390|
|James Conner, PIT||9||512||80%||203||40%||1,158|
|Saquon Barkley, NYG||9||490||85%||193||39%||1,116|
|Ezekiel Elliott, DAL||9||510||89%||203||40%||1,093|
|Kareem Hunt, KC||10||441||69%||190||43%||1,091|
|Melvin Gordon, LAC||9||360||74%||161||45%||1,033|
|Alvin Kamara, NO||9||412||67%||178||43%||1,019|
|Christian McCaffrey, CAR||9||554||96%||177||32%||1,018|
|Adrian Peterson, WAS||9||290||48%||169||58%||840|
|James White, NE||10||415||60%||127||31%||792|
Before McCaffrey’s arrival in Charlotte in 2017, Ron Rivera’s Panther teams never featured a running back who played more than 67 percent of the team’s snaps over the course of a full season. But McCaffrey’s versatility as a runner and receiver made Rivera and offensive coordinator Norv Turner ditch the traditional two-back system made famous locally by former Panthers Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams.
Rivera and Turner witnessed a successful offense centered around a versatile running back in San Diego with LaDanian Tomlinson. Now midway through his first season with Turner’s offense, Rivera says McCaffrey is cut out for a similar role.
“I think the more Norv got to know who Christian is, the more we saw we can keep him on the field,” Rivera said Tuesday. “A lot of things we do are structured around his skill set and what Christian can do as a football player.
“As I’ve said before, I’ve been fortunate enough to be around it when I’ve seen it work, when you had LaDanian and you had Darren Sproles in the backfield and Michael Turner in the backfield as well.
“I think understanding a little bit more about Christian may have opted coach to call the plays that he called and design the plays that he’s running.”
The Panthers’ leader in rushing attempts and receptions, McCaffrey has played the role of both Tomlinson and Sproles role this season, although Rivera says he thinks Cameron Artis-Payne can be the type of back who can spell McCaffrey. New signee Travaris Cadet’s skill set is similar to McCaffrey’s.
Should McCaffrey get hurt, there’s no player on the roster who could transition seamlessly into his role — but the team isn’t worried about the “what-if” scenarios that could be applied to most of its starters.
Neither is McCaffrey.
“You can never be careful. You play the game one way — you play it full speed,” he said. “It’s part of the game, sometimes bad things happen but I think all the stuff during the week — taking care of your body, training the way you train for a collision sport — it’s the stuff that’ll help you there. Eating right, sleeping right, all that stuff.
“You never play to not get injured, you play full speed and ready to roll at all times.”
For Panthers fans worried about McCaffrey’s longevity at his current snap rate, this stat could get you through the night — his usage rate (touches per snaps played) of 32 percent is the second-lowest of any of the NFL’s 10 most-productive running backs.
While the Panthers need him on the field, his effectiveness as a decoy means he won’t always get the ball — no matter how badly he wants it.