(in collaboration with Rob Leano and Eddie Ayala)
What makes Christian McCaffrey so good? The elusive third-year dynamo from Stanford inspires fear in the hearts of all the opponents he faces. His blend of elusiveness, speed, vision, and understanding of coverage schemes has positioned him as a unique offensive threat, and an extremely dangerous player whenever the ball touches his hands. Because he is so versatile, this is an enormous problem. McCaffrey is Stanford’s kickoff returner, punt returner, and feature back, and can score a touchdown from any of those positions at any time. He returns punts and kickoffs so prolifically that it is not even surprising when he does it, unlike even the best of returners on other teams. Teams reformat their entire special teams schemes to contend with his returning prowess.
In his team’s game against UCLA, the Bruins intentionally kicked away from him on EVERY kickoff, and nearly every punt. Despite a very good defensive effort against him by the Bruin defense on the 24th, he still amassed 138 rushing yards. He is maybe the most explosive player of all time. He owns the all-time FBS lead in all-purpose yards. He lines up as a legitimate receiver for Stanford on third downs. He catches passes and has to be regarded as one of their leading receivers, because he is and he can break off a big chunk of yardage at any time.
McCaffrey has had several breakout games in his career, but the two most notable were against USC in the 2015 Pac-12 Championship and the 2016 Rose Bowl.
What made McCaffrey such a threat in the 2015 Pac-12 Championship was his ability to do it all for the Cardinal. At running back, he averaged 6.5 yards a carry, finishing with 208 yards on the ground. The then-sophomore, now junior, also showed his versatility with a touchdown pass to Kevin Hogan early in the second and added a touchdown at receiver as well. McCaffrey scored three total times while amassing 149 return yards, 105 receiving yards, and 11 passing yards. He totaled a ridiculous 461 all-purpose yards, good enough to break Barry Sanders’ record of most all-purpose yards in a single-season.
In addition to recording video game-like stats against USC and breaking a longtime NCAA record, McCaffrey also showed up for Stanford when it mattered most. Good players can lead their team in stats, but great players can lead their team to victory. McCaffrey did just that. With 6:33 left in the game, McCaffrey caught a 28-yard touchdown pass to seal the win. He then added insult to injury in the final minute with a 10-yard rushing touchdown, handing Stanford its third Pac-12 championship in four years.
The 2016 Rose Bowl provided much of the same action from McCaffrey, who was once again playing in a nationally televised game, this time against a threatening 12-1 Iowa team. The running back wasted no time, catching a perfect pass through the middle for a 75-yard touchdown on Stanford’s first offensive play of the game. The story of this game, however, was McCaffrey breaking Jared Abbrederis’ Rose Bowl all-purpose yards record via vision and patience at running back. McCaffrey showed his vision reading Iowa’s defensive pursuit, setting up his blocks and rushing past Iowa defenders as the linemen did the hard work. Once in the open field, McCaffrey put would-be tacklers on their backs with diamond-sharp cuts and changes of direction. He then proceeded to prove that he can score from anywhere on the field, recording his first punt return for a touchdown. McCaffrey finished the Rose Bowl with 172 rushing yards, 105 receiving yards, 91 return yards and two touchdowns, totaling 368 all-purpose yards. He just generally made everything look way too easy. Watching the game, you could tell he was on an entirely different level from everyone else.
What made McCaffrey so remarkable in these two games was his durability. Most running backs would be pleased to rush for 170 yards in a game–that’s a great game for them. However, for McCaffrey, 170 yards isn’t enough. He added an additional 100 yards receiving and 100 yards returning before calling it a successful day.
The phrase “playing like he’s in a video game” gets thrown around a lot in today’s sporting world. However, it could be argued that McCaffrey embodies this phrase better than any player in college football today. His ability to use his patience and agility to generate chunk yardage even when running through tiny gaps is unparalleled in the sport. McCaffrey was more dominant in the Rose Bowl then any player has been in a college football game maybe EVER. Iowa’s defense had no answer for him, and he was the reason Stanford won so handily, 45-16.
McCaffrey really should have won the Heisman trophy last year. Besides totaling 3,864 all-purpose yards and touchdowns, he meant more to his team than any other player. Sure, he had a steady, veteran quarterback in Kevin Hogan backing him up, as well as a strong defense. However, he was the heart and soul of that team. Plus, Derrick Henry, the Alabama running back that took home the Heisman, averaged many fewer yards per carry (5.62) than McCaffrey. Henry certainly had a phenomenal season, amassing 2,219 rushing yards and helping lead Alabama to a national championship. But McCaffrey WAS Stanford’s team. He did so many things for them. The tremendous returning, the 2,019 yards rushing, and the 645 yards receiving keyed Stanford’s Rose Bowl season. Plus, Alabama’s defense contained an almost unprecedented number of NFL draft picks. Stanford’s defense was experienced and solid, but not loaded with the type of talent that Alabama possessed.
The other thing that made McCaffrey such a special player (and why he should have won the Heisman) was his versatility. He affected the game in so many different ways, and all the ways he affected it in were substantial. Whether rushing, receiving, returning, or passing, he was always able to utilize his unique skill set to gain chunk yardage and help set Stanford up for success.
Plus, he didn’t just break Sanders’ all-time all-purpose yards record–he absolutely OBLITERATED IT. Sanders, in his record-setting season, logged 3,250 yards. McCaffrey exceeded that by 634 yards. It wasn’t even close.
To be completely fair, the wide margin is a little misleading. Sanders’ stats refer only to the regular season games he played, of which there were 11. His stats in the 1998 Holiday Bowl did not count toward his total, as college football did not adopt the practice of adding stats from postseason games to regular-season totals until 2002. Because of this, as well as his still-NCAA single-season record 2,628 rushing yards (7.6 yards per carry), it is reasonable to postulate that Sanders still holds the claim for the best individual college football season ever by a running back/all-purpose player.
To be even fairer, Henry finished fifth all-time with his impressive total of 2,219 yards. This is certainly an impressive accomplishment in and of itself. McCaffrey is 22nd all-time in single-season rushing yards after last season, by the way.
But the kicker about McCaffrey is that besides all the rushing yards he amassed (which he did more efficiently than Henry) is all the other things he did. He didn’t have as many rush yards at least in part because he was receiving or (occasionally) passing as well. 645 receiving yards is an impressive stat in its own right–that was just one small part of McCaffrey’s season for the ages. McCaffrey ran all over the field all game long, every game, racking up those unbelievable stats we all love to drool over.
He played with an absolute electricity surrounding him. He still does. He was and is Stanford’s first option at running back, their punt returner, their kick returner, and one of their better receivers. He gets an unbelievably high number of touches. The Stanford coaches have said that when they call offensive plays, McCaffrey is usually the number one option, regardless of what the play is.
This season, Stanford has also used him as a decoy, with great success. Even when not touching the ball, he can still affect the defense by making them think he has the ball and blocking.
So, what is the “it” that makes McCaffrey so good? “It,” like McCaffrey’s game, is many things–a combination of skills and talents that usually would be split between multiple outstanding players, all rolled into one incredible package.
Keep watching McCaffrey this year to see what he can do for an encore, and also be sure to keep a close eye on Armchair All-Americans for our unrivaled, unparalleled, McCaffrey-like coverage of all things McCaffrey, Stanford, and the Pac-12.