Panthers’ versatility has Ron Rivera excited

Head coach raves about all the offensive weapons

Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey splits two Buccaneers defenders during last Sunday’s game at Raymond James Stadium. (Reinhold Matay / USA TODAY Sports)

It takes a lot to make an NFL coach happy.

Normally, coach press conferences are staid affairs — more board meeting than pep rally. If any emotion is shown, it’s usually annoyance with the line of questioning.


Unless there’s a drive like the Carolina Panthers’ second possession of the win against Tampa last weekend. Then it’s like Christmas morning for coaches.

Jonathan Stewart started it by running the ball. Sixteen plays and 8:38 later, Stewart finished it with a 1-yard touchdown run.

In between, Cam Newton, Cameron Artis-Payne and Christian McCaffrey ran it. Newton threw passes to Kelvin Benjamin, Curtis Samuel, Devin Funchess, Russell Shepard, Ed Dickson and McCaffrey.

Including kicker Graham Gano’s extra point, 10 different Panthers were given the chance to touch the ball on the drive, or more than one-fifth of the active roster.

“It was good to see,” said an upbeat Ron Rivera. “We’ll continue to do that.”

The Panthers hit the halfway point of the season with a 5-3 record and an extremely optimistic head coach.

“There are a lot of positives,” Rivera said. “If you look at tape, you see how close we really are. When you see the missed opportunities, it’s a positive, because you see how close we are. I’m excited about it, because you see the potential for growth.”

That potential includes a wide variety of formations and offensive weapons, as evidenced by the marathon touchdown drive.

“We’ll continue to do that,” he said. “Hopefully, if we can spread the ball around, it helps our offense, because now you can’t zone in on one guy and take him away. You’ve got to respect everyone that’s out there. When you have 10 different guys touch the ball, that helps you.”

McCaffrey, the first-round draft pick, is the prototype for the new-look Carolina offense that treats touches like youth soccer trophies — everybody gets one.

“You’ve got to prepare for all the possibilities,” Rivera said. “Is he going to be at tailback? Offset back? Is he going to be an F? The H? A wing? Lined up wide? Now you’ve got to account for wherever he is. And if you focus in on him, and he’s going one way, but we throw the ball back in a different direction, that opens things up. That’s what his versatility does for us.”

Early in the season, McCaffrey’s versatility seemed to have coaches and the rookie baffled. The team seemed to be struggling with ways to fit him into the game plan. After half a season of learning by player and coaching staff, McCaffrey has developed into the weapon everyone expected. He’s already set the team’s receptions record for running backs and has the second-most catches by a rookie in Panthers history. He also leads NFL rookies in catches and receiving yards.

“These young guys are beginning to understand. You see their growth,” Rivera said. “The more we rep them, the more we do it, we’ll get better at it. That’s the reason I’m so optimistic. They’re grasping it, they’re buying in. … You get excited about what our potential could be.”

It’s enough to make a coach smile … almost.