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Brendan Marks: Christian McCaffrey is carrying the Panthers, and may be the NFL MVP

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Ho hum, 237 total yards and three touchdowns.

Nothing to see here, folks.

Nothing except one of the best individual performances in Carolina Panthers team history. And with the way Christian McCaffrey played Sunday in Carolina’s 34-27 win over Jacksonville – on a day when the franchise honored four new inductees to the Hall of Honor – it was an easy mental exercise to picture the running back one day donning his own blue blazer in a similar ceremony.

It’s not as if these sorts of performances are rare of McCaffrey. He entered Sunday’s game leading the NFL in rushing yards, scrimmage yards, touches, percentage of snaps played … basically everything you could ask of one player.

Some of that usage is a byproduct of the team’s quarterback situation. With Kyle Allen starting his third consecutive game in place of the injured Cam Newton, who is out indefinitely with a Lisfranc injury in his left foot, the team has leaned on the running game more than it typically would.

But McCaffrey has made outbursts like this the standard rather than the exception. For him to induce any type of how-did-he do-that? play, with expectations already as lofty as they are, takes some darn special stuff.

Or in other words, what happened Sunday.

“We came into the game thinking that we wanted to stop Christian McCaffrey and control him,” Jacksonville coach Doug Marrone said. “Obviously he had a really good day, and that hurt us.”

The dynamic effort began on the team’s first drive, when deep in the red zone, offensive coordinator Norv Turner called McCaffrey’s number. McCaffrey caught the ball short right, seemingly headed out of bounds as a defender neared – until at the last second, he juked and stayed inbounds. Then, after the defender went skating by like the turf had turned to ice, McCaffrey kept churning and picked up a first down.

The next play, he stiff-armed a defender to get around the right edge of the pile.

Then, he flew.

McCaffrey tried hurdling a defender, but was hit in midair and started to flip.

“I’m not thinking anything,” McCaffrey said of when he was airborne. “It’s kind of just a split second. Kind of hope you get in the end zone, try to land graciously.”

He didn’t, landing squarely on his back and splaying out in the end zone. But a touchdown is a touchdown, and that one gave the Panthers an early lead.

Later in the first quarter, after Eric Reid recovered a fumble that gave the ball to the Panthers (3-2) in Jacksonville territory, Turner went back to McCaffrey. He ran a short route to the middle of the zone, drawing linebacker Myles Jack in the process – and then doubled back inside to break free. Allen hit him in stride, making it an easy feat for McCaffrey to outrun Jack to the goal line.

“It was just set up perfectly how we wanted to do it,” Allen said. “They left Myles Jack one-on-one with Christian. It’s a tough matchup for anybody, not only Myles Jack, even if there was a safety in there.”

The only issue with McCaffrey going off like he did?

He was doing it out of necessity.

The rest of the Panthers offense wasn’t exactly functioning all cylinders, nor has it been the past two weeks. Greg Olsen finished without a reception for the first time since 2017, and Allen’s accuracy issues were a constant throughout. Only one player besides McCaffrey finished with over 20 yards receiving (DJ Moore had 91).

So late in the game, the Panthers had to go back to what they know best.

It was at that point that McCaffrey truly dropped jaws. On Carolina’s first offensive play of the second half, the team faked a reverse to Curtis Samuel and instead handed off to McCaffrey.

Nobody got a hand on him.

The fake to Samuel drew defenders away from McCaffrey, who hit a wide open hole and ran 84 yards to the end zone. It was the longest run in team history, outdoing De’Angelo Williams’ 77-yard run in 2009. McCaffrey also had a similar 76-yard touchdown against Arizona, making him the first player in the NFL this year with multiple runs over 75 yards.

“Got the ball to the left, hit the hole, and … ” McCaffrey said, pausing and flashing a wide smile. “Ran from there.

“At that point I’m just thinking footrace, and do what I can to run as fast as I can.”

Perhaps the only thing he didn’t succeed in was playing quarterback. Turner called a running back pass for him in the fourth quarter, but when he didn’t see an open man after rolling right, he opted to just throw the ball into the ground. He also failed to pick up a critical fourth-and-1 the following play – dropped for a two-yard loss – leaving Carolina empty-handed after an 89-yard drive.

Eventually as the game wore on, things turned south for McCaffrey. After constantly churning out yards – oftentimes Carolina’s only source of offense – McCaffrey came out late in the fourth quarter with what appeared to be cramps. After he spoke with trainers, McCaffrey never went back in the game. His backup, Reggie Bonnafon, instead broke a 59-yard run that practically sealed the game at 34-27 – or at least it would have been more likely to had kicker Joey Slye not missed the point-after attempt.

McCaffrey confirmed he was dealing with cramps after the game, although as he said, Bonnafon clearly proved himself a capable fill-in.

Still, after tying his career-high in yards, McCaffrey was the reason the Panthers were ever in this game against a scrappy Jacksonville team. For all the stats and accolades piling up, perhaps two are most telling as to the true impact McCaffrey has had five games into the 2019 season:

First, McCaffrey is the first player since Hall of Famer Jim Brown to have at least 175 scrimmage yards and a touchdown in four of the first five games of a season.

And secondly, McCaffrey is currently on pace for 2,771 scrimmage yards the season – the NFL record is 2,509, set by Chris Johnson in 2009.

So not only is the 23-year-old having a great season in the context of this Panthers offense, but he’s tracking towards a historically relevant season.

“He is amazing,” Jacksonville running back Leonard Fournette said of McCaffrey, who was taken four spots behind him in the 2017 NFL Draft. “Can’t expect any more from him.”

The question is, can the Panthers? During this three-game winning streak, McCaffrey has proven himself as invaluable as any player in the league. But as his cramps late on Sunday show, there are potential consequences tied to that intense usage.

Still, even with Bonnafon’s long run, this team needs McCaffrey to perform at this level to stay in games. He may see a play or two off here and there, but there’s a reason the man is on the field as much as he is.

Because more than a quarter of the way into the 2019 season, McCaffrey has been as impressive as any other player in the league. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said as much when he said McCaffrey is the Most Valuable Player in the NFL so far.

Of course, McCaffrey would never say that about himself – no matter how high his current trajectory.

“I think I’m playing well,” McCaffrey said. “I think there’s a couple of things here and there that I’ve gotta get better at, but at the end of the day, it’s a team game. Team win, team losses. My job is to do my job, and it doesn’t happen if the guys up front don’t block, if Kyle’s not making the right calls.

“There’s a lot of good statistical games and there’s a lot of bad statistical games, and at the end of the day, we just gotta focus on doing our job and executing.”

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Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) finds running room against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C. The Panthers won, 34-27. (David T. Foster III/Charlotte Observer/TNS)

Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) finds running room against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C. The Panthers won, 34-27. (David T. Foster III/Charlotte Observer/TNS)

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