The MVP running back, once a common feature of the NFL, has become an artifact of the past, a species near extinction. Passing has ruled the sport for more than a decade. Almost uniformly, teams treat running backs as interchangeable and fragile. When one is drafted in the first round, it strikes a discordant tone. Despite the outlier case of Ezekiel Elliott, running back is the position most likely to hold out for a new contract and lose the standoff.
In 2012, Adrian Peterson rushed for 2,097 yards and beat out Peyton Manning for league MVP, marking the 18th time — and seventh in 16 years — a running back had won. Quarterbacks have won every year since, and only three runners have received a vote. It seems possible, if not likely, Peterson will be the last running back ever to hoist the trophy.
Into the NFL’s environment of running back disregard has sprinted, bulldozed and leaped Christian McCaffrey, the Carolina Panthers dynamo carrying his offense like no running back in recent memory. McCaffrey’s towering ability and unique usage has at least thrust him into the MVP discussion, and if his torrid start continues — a tough ask, given the position’s physical demands — he may challenge newly established conventions regarding who can be deemed most valuable.
The way NFL teams operate in 2019, any good quarterback on any contending team would have to be considered more valuable than even an unusually talented and heavily used running back. By modern advanced metrics, the notion of a running back being most valuable would be patently absurd. But if you suspend or stretch the literal meaning of value, then you can start to make a strong case for McCaffrey, the rare running back who carries his team’s heaviest offensive burden.
Momentum has started to build for McCaffrey. He has risen to third in MVP betting odds, sitting behind only reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson at 7 1/2-to-1. In the national media and in the Panthers locker room, the topic has surfaced.
“If the season ended right now,” defensive tackle Gerald McCoy told reporters Sunday, “He’s the MVP.”
McCaffrey is an offense unto himself. He has rushed 105 times for 587 yards and caught 31 passes for 279 yards, scoring seven total touchdowns. His 866 scrimmage yards — 124 more than Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook, who ranks second — puts him on pace for 2,771, which would break Chris Johnson’s record by more than 250 yards.
The circumstances of his production bolster McCaffrey’s case. He has dragged the Panthers’ offense to a 3-2 record after Carolina lost franchise quarterback Cam Newton. While undrafted, second-year passer Kyle Allen has been more than serviceable, the Panthers have recast their offense around McCaffrey in a way largely foreign to the current NFL.
While running backs may be discounted in today’s game, McCaffrey stretches the definition of a traditional running back. He can line up in the slot and run routes on par with the league’s top wideouts. The Panthers’ ability to send him in motion can tilt a defense and open space for their other playmakers. McCaffrey is a matchup nightmare who has an impact on Carolina’s offense even when he doesn’t touch the ball.
“I always say, he’s not a running back,” McCoy said. “He’s a weapon.”
Most the time, McCaffrey does touch the ball. He has carried it or caught it on 42.2% of Carolina’s plays. Not since 2014, when the Cowboys gave the ball to DeMarco Murray on 44.2% of their snaps, has an offensive player been featured so frequently. Having lost their quarterback, the Panthers are relying on McCaffrey in singular fashion.
But even that may not be enough. Murray rushed for more than 1,800 yards in 2014, and for his trouble he received two out of 50 MVP votes. (Aaron Rodgers won.) Even with his staggering production, it would take a jarring reversal of recent history for McCaffrey to pull ahead.
Between 1991 and 2006, a running back received an MVP vote every single season except 2004, when Manning set the record with 49 touchdown passes and received all but one vote. (The other went to Michael Vick.) In seven of those 16 seasons, a running back won the award, including Shaun Alexander and LaDainian Tomlinson in 2005 and 2006. Tom Brady received every vote in 2007, when the Patriots went undefeated, but running backs rebounded in 2008, with Michael Turner, Peterson and Chris Johnson all getting votes.
And then it flipped. Perhaps owing to the influence of the 2007 Patriots, the first NFL team to run more plays in shotgun than under center, passing took over the league more than ever before. No running back received another vote until Peterson rushed for 2,097 yards in 2012 and edged Manning for the trophy. Aside from Peterson’s MVP, quarterbacks have won every award since 2007. Only three running backs — Murray (2014), Ezekiel Elliott (2016) and Todd Gurley (2017) — have even received a vote since Peterson’s win.
McCaffrey could change that this season. If the Panthers upend the Saints in the NFC South — no easy task, given New Orleans has thrived even with Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback for the injured Drew Brees — he should at least receive a handful of votes, especially if Newton remains out. Both history and the parameters of NFL offense suggest McCaffrey has no chance to win, that a running can’t be considered most valuable when compared to a quarterback. But maybe he can save it from extinction.
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