Questions About Christian McCaffrey and the Panthers

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The Carolina Panthers entered the NFL in 1995 and as one of the NFL’s newest franchises, they have played in and lost 2 Super Bowls, 2003 and 2015. The Super Bowl appearances are a nice mantle piece, for sure, considering that their cousin cat, the Jaguars, entered the league in the same year and have yet to catwalk to the big game. In fact, over the course of their 26 full seasons, the Jags have 8 winning seasons to the Panthers 7 (not counting 8-8 seasons). Contrast both cats to the Baltimore Ravens, born one year later, who have 15 winning seasons out of 26 (and are on the way to their 16th). The Panthers, 428 games into their nine lives, hold a 48% win rate. Take away the 2 Super Bowl appearances and an objective, non-bias observer should agree that the Panthers’ history is just ho-hum mediocrity.

This is certainly not a hot-take, yet most Carolina fans held high hopes in 2017 when the Panthers drafted Christian McCaffrey as the 8th pick overall. That hope held promise as the Panthers rallied to an 11-5 finish and lost in the Wild Card round of the 2017 playoffs. In that playoff game, CMC caught 6 of 8 targets for 101 yards and a touchdown. McCaffery signaled hope to a team coming off a 6-10 season the year before and in February 2018, the Panthers released its all-time leading rusher, Jonathan Stewart, looking to build around CMC.

In 2021, the Panthers are in their fifth year of the CMC experiment and it’s time to evaluate and ask a few questions.

Was Christian McCaffrey worth the Panthers’ 8th overall pick?

Let me begin by saying that I do not question the talent of Christian McCaffrey. He is a generational talent, no question. In 2019, he became the third player in NFL history to have 1,000 rushing yards & 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. But we have to examine this question in light of opportunity costs. Who did the Panthers not select in order to take CMC at #8? Here are a few names – TJ Watt, Patrick Mahomes, Cooper Kupp, Alvin Kamara, Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon, and Aaron Jones. Each player, including McCaffrey, is still with the team that drafted him, and while the players aren’t solely responsible for their team’s overall success, one of the things I reviewed was the total wins for each team since the 2017 draft. The chart below shows the player, position, draft pick number, the team, the teams’ total wins, playoff appearances, and individual stats for each player. I decided to only include running backs in the chart to compare opportunity costs at that position, but it can be argued that the Panthers could have easily built their team around any of the other players. For instance, Watt, drafted #30 by the Steelers, has 62 sacks since 2017 and is only 1.5 sacks behind the league’s sack leader Aaron Donald. The Steelers’ wins total 47 to the Panthers 33 since 2017. Mahomes, drafted by the Chiefs at #10, has been to the playoffs in all 4 seasons, played in 2 Super Bowls, and won one. Since 2017, he’s 4th in passing TDs with 139, and at 105.7, Mahomes is second in QB rating. The Chiefs have won 22 more games than the Panthers in this stretch.  But hey, the Panthers aren’t the only team to whiff on Mahomes, including and most famously, da Bears, who selected Mitch Trubisky in the #2 spot.

Now for the chart.

chart of 2017 NFL running back stats
The top-performing running backs in the 2017 draft class compared to Christian McCaffrey

A couple of RBs pop off the chart who draw into question the wisdom of McCaffrey at #8. Kamara, picked almost 60 spots later, has contributed to 21 more team wins, played in 10 more games, has 18 more total touchdowns and 400 more total yards. The Panthers’ top 3 picks in the 2017 draft were numbers 8, 40, and 64. At 40, they took WR Curtis Samuel, but imagine a Panthers’ team with Mahomes at 8, and Kamara at 40 (or any of the other RBs in the chart).

Aaron Jones is the other surprise at pick number 182. He’s been available for 7 more games and scored 3 more TDs than CMC. The argument isn’t that any of these running backs were obvious first-round picks who deserved to be picked ahead of CMC. The point is that these RBs gave the Panthers an opportunity to pick another player at the 8 spot. All of the other running backs were available at #40, and Kamara and Jones were both sitting there at the Panthers’ next pick, #64.

Did Christian McCaffrey turn the team around?

Yes, you argue that McCaffrey’s injuries impact his stats. I agree, but this isn’t just about his stats, it’s about his ability to help his team win, and was it worth a pick at #8? As the chart above shows, the Panthers’ win total since the 2017 draft is 33, but let’s omit the games that CMC missed due to injury. He can’t contribute if he’s not on the field. In 4.5 seasons, McCaffrey played in 58 games resulting in 27 team wins, a 46.5% win rate. The total franchise record, in its 27th season, is 205-222-1, a 48% win rate. In the pre-CMC Panthers’ history, their record was 172-179-1, a 49% win rate. By this metric, McCaffrey hasn’t helped the Panthers win any more games than they did before him. Compare this to the Saints who had 4/5 losing seasons prior to picking up Kamara in the 2017 draft and made the playoffs only once in that period. Since the Saints drafted Kamara their winning percentage has boomed to 76% and made the playoffs every year – same coach, same QB (except for this year) as in the 5 seasons prior to 2017.

Do the Panthers use Christian McCaffrey in the right way? 

Critics argued early on that McCaffrey, 5’11”, 205lbs, wasn’t built as a 3-down, workhorse running back in the NFL, yet the Panthers’ coaching staff ignored the warnings. By the end of the 2019 season, the critics became crickets. In 2018-2019, the 2 seasons that McCaffrey started and carried the load, he touched the ball a total of 729 times for 4357 total yards, and 32 total TDs. That’s 23 touches a game. By comparison, Derrick Henry, 6’3″, 247lbs, the much larger workhorse RB for the Tennessee Titans, had 551 total touches during this same period (18 touches a game). Even in 2019-2020, when the Titans absolutely fed Henry, he only had 718 touches, 23 a game, the same as the more diminutive CMC. Then the crickets got loud again in 2020 when McCaffrey fell to injury in the second game of the season. He managed a comeback in week 9, only to go down again to an injury and this time, for the season, after starting only 3 games.

A healthy, rejuvenated CMC returned to the field in 2021 but did the coaching staff learn anything? In week 1 against the Jets, the Panthers fed CMC 30 touches. In week 2, he got 29 against New Orleans. So it seems, the coaching staff didn’t learn a thing and planned to keep riding CMC like a workhorse. In week 3, he went down again, early in the game after only 9 touches. McCaffrey did return in week 9 and managed to play until a week 12 season-ending injury in the Dolphins game. If you’re counting, CMC played in 10 games out of the last 28 and you have to wonder if his body is too broken to return to top form. And you have to question if the Panthers completely mismanaged and misused this generational talent.

Was McCaffrey’s 2020 contract a wise move by the Panthers?

On April 16th, 2020, one week before the 2020 NFL draft, the Panthers signed McCaffrey to a four-year, $64 million contract extension. Two years remained on McCaffrey’s rookie contract, so why re-sign him early? Why not take a “wait and see” approach and wait a year? Entering the 2020 draft, the Panthers had picks 7 and 38 and took safety Jeremy Chinn and defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos. The Chinn pick is defensible, but with running back Jonathan Taylor available and drafted by the Colts at 41, the Panthers’ second pick is very questionable. In week 14 of the NFL 2021 season, Taylor leads all running backs in rushing with 1348 yards. Joe Mixon is a long distant second at 978 yards. The Colts signed Taylor to a 4-year rookie contract for $7,829,154 with $4,829,799 guaranteed including a $3,253,928 signing bonus. By comparison, McCaffrey’s $64 million contract included $30 million of fully guaranteed money. It’s easy to say in hindsight, but the Panthers could have delayed McCaffrey’s re-signing by a year, grabbed Taylor at 38, saved over $22 million in guaranteed money, and used the savings to buy a much needed offensive line.

Let’s get crazy and dream a bit. Imagine that the Panthers’ coaching staff re-evaluated its CMC game plan and decided to do what was best for him and ultimately, the team and cut back on CMC’s workload. Doing so would preserve his effectiveness, his health, and longevity.  The Panthers draft Taylor at 38 and launch a CMC-JT backfield on the NFL – one that runs behind a revamped o-line bought with the money saved by not re-signing McCaffrey 2 years early. The Panthers would be the beast of the NFC South – granted a little more intelligence with the quarterback situation would help.

But back to reality. The Panthers are in an expensive marriage with McCaffery and at this point, we have no idea if he can return to form. That’s the irony of these big-money re-signings of NFL rookies, especially running backs who begin to age out at 27 years old or so. The $64 million certainly rewards McCaffrey for past performances, but in order for the deal to pay off for the Panthers, he has to continue to produce at a very high level with an older body that has absorbed hundreds of hits. It’s a big gamble for the Panthers and there is an ongoing debate if big-money running back contracts are a good decision. In light of McCaffrey’s 2020 and 2021 injury-ridden seasons, and the opportunity cost for not drafting Taylor, it certainly looks like the big contract was a bad idea.

Christian McCaffrey, a popular player among Panthers fans and fantasy football players, is a great NFL running back, but time will tell if he’s worth the investment to draft him and keep him. We will also have to wait until 2022 to see how the Panthers’ coaching staff chooses to use him going forward. As the saying goes, if we don’t learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it. For McCaffrey’s sake and the Carolina Panthers, I hope that isn’t the case.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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