NSJ Player of the Year 2019: McCaffrey emerges as superstar for Panthers

Carolina’s do-everything running back had an MVP-caliber season despite his team’s struggles in 2019

Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey has been arguably the NFL’s best offensive player in an otherwise disappointing season for Carolina. (Brian Blanco / AP Photo)

In 1985, San Francisco 49ers running back Roger Craig rushed for 1,050 yards and caught 92 passes for 1,016 yards, becoming the first player in NFL history to hit quadruple digits in both categories.

It would be 14 years before the 1,000/1,000 club gained another member. Marshall Faulk had 1,381 yards on the ground and 1,048 through the air for the 1999 Rams.

Nearly two decades later, Craig identified the potential third member of the club.

Bumping into Christian McCaffrey in San Francisco, Craig told the Panthers running back, “You can do it. You can join the 1,000/1,000 team.”

“That meant a lot,” McCaffrey said of the praise from the NFL legend. “He’s a guy I had a lot of respect for — him and Marshall Faulk. They’re guys I watched growing up. For them to say that means a lot to me.”

Before this season, Craig repeated his prediction to ESPN, saying, “He will definitely get the 1,000/1,000. It’s in his DNA to make that happen. He’s got the tools. He’s built for it. His day will come.”

It could happen this year. McCaffrey already has more than 1,300 rushing yards, his second straight 1,000-yard season on the ground. He also needs to average 90 receiving yards to reach 1,000 by air. He fell 133 yards short of the mark last year when he caught an NFL running back-record 107 passes.

It would be a rare accomplishment, which is nothing new for the versatile back that many thought was too small for the NFL when the Panthers chose him eighth overall in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Already this season, McCaffrey has become the first player in league history to reach 1,000 yards rushing and 500 receiving through 10 games. He also became the second-fastest back in NFL history — behind Herschel Walker — to reach 2,000 receiving yards, and the second player to score 20 rushing and 15 receiving touchdowns in their first three seasons.

With quarterback Cam Newton out for the year with an injury and potentially on his way out of town, McCaffrey has stepped in as the face of the Panthers’ offense and the team’s go-to guy. His 121 yards receiving against Atlanta in November was a team record for running backs.

McCaffrey’s performance, even in a down year for the Panthers franchise, earned him the North State Journal’s North Carolina Player of the Year Award for 2019.

This all came in a year where the Panthers coaches professed a desire to limit the wear and tear on the young star. Instead, as the rest of the offense struggled to produce, Carolina kept handing him the ball, and McCaffrey showed that, size aside, the 5-foot-11, 205-pounder is a workhorse. Through 13 games, he had 246 carries, seven off the NFL lead, and he was 61 yards behind in the race for the league’s rushing title.

The statistics are great, but they’re not what McCaffrey wants to talk about. He’d be the first to point out that when Craig ran and caught for 1,000 in 1985, the 49ers made the playoffs. When Faulk did it in 1999, the Rams won the Super Bowl.

“At the end of the day, the most important thing in football is winning,” he said. “That’s the only thing you really get credit for. People remember who wins the Super Bowl. That’s what we want to do. It’s a game of opportunities. The 1,000/1,000 mark is an opportunity. I’ve been fortunate to get a lot of opportunities with the ball in my hand. Sometimes it might happen. Sometimes it might not.

“Stats come and go,” he continued, “and records get broken. The biggest thing I try to control is my approach, my preparation, making sure I’m ready to go on Sunday. When opportunity hits, my job is to be in the best position I can be.”

McCaffrey would obviously like to get the mark. It’s just not his top priority.

“If it happens, great,” he said. “If it doesn’t, obviously, it would be better if it did. People ask me all the time, ‘Are you mad you didn’t a get lot of carries or catches?’ At the end of the day, football is football. Individual statistics get highlighted in today’s society, by today’s football watchers. It’s because of fantasy football and because of gambling. All we care about is winning. Some of that stuff can take away from the beauty of football.”

So, while the Panthers are playing out the string of a lost season, McCaffrey will give the fans something to hope for as he tries to join the NFL elite.

“It would be a lot better if it was relevant,” he said, “and we were playing in the postseason.”