Efficiency Realized: Outlining the Proper Usage of Christian McCaffrey

By Warren Sharp

The first season after the NFL changed the hit rules on quarterbacks, and likewise better protected receivers over the middle of the field, was 2011. Since then, just 4 current players have recorded at least two seasons with 100+ rushes while averaging at least 4 yards per carry and 50+ receptions: LeSean McCoy, Le’Veon Bell, DeMarco Murray and Matt Forte.

Meanwhile, 35 current players recorded multiple seasons with those same rushing numbers, but without the receiving numbers. The clear majority of the non-receiving running backs are considered “3 down backs”. Players big enough to carry the load and who don’t need to leave the field on short yardage situations. However, the reality is many of them leave the field when it is 3rd and long, and get replaced by a “3rd down back”.

There is a misconstrued concept in modern NFL of a “3rd down back”. He is the “pass catching back”. And he typically is more of a scat-back who isn’t built to sustain pounding over 3 downs, but can be utilized as a receiving running back on 3rd down if the quarterback needs to target him. Here is the issue with that strategy: it doesn’t work.

Targeting a running back out of the backfield on 3rd down and medium or longer (7+ yards to go), when most “3rd down backs” trot onto the field, results in a first down less than half as often as targeting a different position (WR/TE). The numbers are very clear: Only 17% of these 3rd down passes to running backs are successful, whereas 35% of passes to other positions are successful. Of any down and distance, the absolute worst time to throw the ball to a RB is on 3rd down and medium “+”.

If a team views these “3rd down backs” as successful and elusive pass catchers, they should actually incorporate them on 1st down, potentially in place of a 1st down handoff. Last year, the league wide average for successful runs on 1st and 10 was 46%. However, 58% of passes to running backs on 1st and 10 were successful. That is a massive variance.

In fact, as the below graphic shows, targeting running backs on 1st down is more likely to result in a successful gain than targeting a WR. League-wide, success rates to running backs on 1st and 10 or less yards to go is 58%, much greater than targeting wide receivers in the same situation (55% success rate).

target success rate

The other benefit to targeting running backs on 1st and 10 does is that it reduces turnovers. Using the data from SharpFootballStats.com, passes to running backs on 1st and 10 result in interceptions 0.9% of the time (11 INTs on 1,189 ATT) whereas passes to WRs result in interceptions well over double that rate: 2.4% of the time (88 INTs on 3,636 ATT). There is no single play more likely to lose a game for an offense than a turnover. Turnover margin is the most correlated metric to wins and losses that exists. Throwing interceptions, particularly on 1st down, is a sure-fire way to lose games.

So apart from strategical edges, what does this have to do with Christian McCaffrey?

Even though becoming a legitimate receiving target has happened only to 10% of the running backs that recorded multiple seasons with 100+ rushes at 4 yards per carry (4 out of 39), McCaffrey will likely join that fraternity: the 3 down running back who is a dangerous weapon in the passing game. He’ll soon join the likes of LeSean McCoy and Le’Veon Bell. McCaffrey may not be perfectly comparable to them from a body type. But McCaffrey can be an even more dangerous weapon in the passing game then the aforementioned running backs in that he can be split out more frequently and do more damage as a receiver in space. McCaffrey is an established return man and knows how to avoid hits in space.

And it is for these reasons the Panthers took McCaffrey as high as they did. It wasn’t a reach. It wasn’t about a position that has been devalued in the modern passing-style of the NFL. And it most certainly wasn’t about running backs being fungible and interchangeable.

It was about the future of the position and the efficiency potential for running backs with McCaffrey’s skillset. While many look at his 5’11”, 202 pound frame and don’t see a 3-down back, the reality is, they’re right. He’s so much more than a “back”. He’s a 3-down weapon:

We know that on 1st down, he’ll be tremendous as a receiving running back, and can get productive carries on the ground. On 2nd and short after a nice first down gain, it will be in Carolina’s best interest to get to the line of scrimmage quickly before their opponent can rotate in a short yardage package, and run McCaffrey against the base defense. On 2nd or 3rd and medium or long, McCaffrey is your prototypical “Weapon X” who can wreak havoc from any position he’s lined up at. And that’s one of the biggest keys for OC Mike Shula. He needs to implement McCaffrey in many different positions on the field. Every single RB position as well as line him up in the slot – he’s worked with longtime reliable slot WR Brandon Stokley on releases and playing from the slot. Of course, he has the soft hands which are part of the family genes (father, WR Ed McCaffrey) and his short area quickness and acceleration make him a major threat anytime you can get him the ball in space.

Mike Shula must figure out ways to make minor tweaks as well as wholesale changes in his offense to maximize Christian McCaffrey’s ability.  The other thing that McCaffrey brings to the table is the return ability.  And while this certainly is special, if I am Carolina I want to be careful with the frequency of how often I direct McCaffrey to do more than just fair catch the ball.  There will be the temptation to rely solely on him for return duties, especially for as long as Jonathan Stewart is still in Carolina, as McCaffrey won’t need to be the bellcow running back.  He’s no doubt a dangerous weapon anytime he has the ball in his hands.  But risking injury is a big part of it as well.  If I am Carolina, I use him situationally as a return man.  If his fielding ability is so great that his presence on the field causes the NFL punters to change their trajectory in ways it gains field position for the Panthers regardless of a return, I may allow him to be out there more often.  But every “decent” kick would be instructed to be fair caught.  And I would only have him return them if the coverage or kick on a particular play was suboptimal, or if we were in a tight game.

McCaffrey2

While there are a ton of positives for McCaffrey as a player, there are several distinct concerns I have with him in Carolina, and they start and end with Cam Newton.  The Carolina offense presents a unique challenge to get the most out of McCaffrey.  And that is because of the style of quarterback that Cam Newton is, for a couple of reasons.

First, as we know, Newton is a running quarterback. Generally speaking, running quarterbacks are quicker to drop their eyes after downfield routes don’t uncover. They use their legs as a crutch in order to try to keep the offense on track. Additionally, when a pocket collapses, the running quarterback will look to escape using his legs. Meanwhile, the traditional pocket quarterback, such as Tom Brady or Ben Roethlisberger, will not run. They will try to be evasive, but are always looking to complete a pass. And often, that comes in the form of a pass to a running back.

The NFL average for targeting running backs out of the backfield was 19% of pass attempts. Carolina targeted them 2nd least often of any team, with only 13% of attempts going to running backs. On the other end of the spectrum were pocket passing quarterbacks including Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Joe Flacco, Carson Palmer, Matt Ryan and Ben Roethlisberger, who targeted RBs over 10% more often than Carolina’s 13% rate, as the below table shows.

CAR target rate for RBs

More than just the target rate is the quality of targets.  While just 13% are making its way to the Carolina running backs, many of these targets are poorly constructed.  Whether last minute dump offs to running backs in precarious situations or simply bad play design, they haven’t worked.  Surely some of it relates to the quality of running back, and targets to McCaffrey will likely be much more successful than targets to other RBs in the past, but the fact is the success rate when targeting running backs in this offense is the same as the frequency:  2nd worst in the NFL.

CAR success rate for RBs

The second big concern I have for McCaffrey also relates to Cam Newton, and it is that Newton isn’t adept at operating the fast-pass offense.  The Panthers have built their offense to Newton’s strengths, and those are deep drops and powerful, deep targets.  His ball placement and short drops on timing routes is not his expertise.  As Andy Benoit, from theMMQB said:

Not only have [the Panthers] built a passing game on deep dropbacks, but they’ve also acquired big, methodical receivers for Newton (Kelvin Benjamin, first round in 2014; Devin Funchess, second round in 2015; Greg Olsen via trade in 2011).  They haven’t selected the Sproles or Cobb type players because those guys don’t fit Newton or the scheme….

To maximize McCaffrey’s value, the Panthers must tweak their scheme in ways it can’t be tweaked.  You don’t just install a bunch of quick-strike throws and execute them on Sunday.  Those plays must be your foundation.  They must be practiced repeatedly.  And they must be executed by a precise quarterback and quicker skill position players.  McCaffrey is Carolina’s only quick skill player.

I agree that these are concerns.  However, I don’t believe that it is time for doom and gloom and that McCaffrey will not work in Carolina.  Far from it.  But we likely won’t see the ceiling for him like he would have in a variety of other offenses.  However, his ceiling in Carolina is higher than it would be on a number of other offenses, as is his floor.

I love what Christian McCaffrey brings to the NFL.  I love what he brings to Carolina.  I love that people may underestimate the amount of efficiency he can bring to an offense.  But he has to be used properly.  OC Mike Shula must figure out how to target him more often than on 13% of Newton’s pass attempts, as he’s done in the past (2nd fewest in the NFL).  In addition to more volume, Shula must design better running back pass options.  Here is where they have a head start:  Lance Taylor was hired from Stanford to be Carolina’s wide receivers coach.  His prior stint?  Stanford’s running backs coach where he helped design the breakout of Christian McCaffrey. Shula must rely on Taylor to help design the offense in Carolina this year.  Additionally, Shula must have Carolina work in more situational tempo with McCaffrey on the field, and line him up in different positions while preventing the defense from substituting in players.  McCaffrey has the potential to keep defensive coordinators up all night trying to figure out how to stop him.  But if Carolina doesn’t use him enough on offense, it is doing them a disservice.  Much like a speedy receiver, if McCaffrey is on the field, the defense must adjust. And even if the play that is called doesn’t involve McCaffrey, it still can be advantage-Carolina’s offense, as the defense is shading too much to limit McCaffrey.

I’m excited to see what McCaffrey can do on the next level.  I outlined a number of stats-based reasons why teams should rely on running back targets more than they do on early downs.  I hope Carolina takes notice and uses him properly.  More teams need to target running backs.  But until other teams do, I hope at least for Carolina’s sake, we see McCaffrey immediately join that still tiny fraternity of tremendous NFL dual-threat running backs.

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