The NFL is a passing league nowadays. A running back hasn’t been named league MVP since Adrian Peterson’s 2,000-yard rushing season in 2012. But could Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey be the one to break that streak?
He’s off to a blistering start to the 2019 season. Not only does he lead the NFL in rushing yards (587), but no running back since the AFL-NFL merger has more yards from scrimmage (866) through 5 weeks. Since losing quarterback Cam Newton to a foot injury after Week 2, the Panthers have leaned heavily on McCaffrey, handing him the ball 70 times and targeting him another 22 on passing plays. In turn, McCaffrey has rattled off a string of prolific performances, recording 188 yards from scrimmage against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 3, 179 against the Houston Texans in Week 4 and 237 against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 5.
Given his early-season exploits, it’s perhaps not surprising that some are hailing him as a legitimate MVP candidate. And so far, McCaffrey’s stats only seem to boost his case. McCaffrey virtually never comes off the field, having lined up for 96 percent of the team’s plays on offense so far this year. His snap count (309) is the highest through 5 weeks of a season since 2007 — the first year for which we have data. His 105 rushing attempts account for 82 percent of the Panthers handoffs, and McCaffrey’s 587 rushing yards also represent 82 percent of the team’s ground total.
And if we put McCaffrey alongside the 13 backs to win the AP Most Valuable Player award since 1970, he compares favorably. McCaffrey ranks third in rushing and receiving yards through five weeks, and he’s first in total yards from scrimmage.
|Player||season||Rush yds||Rec yds||Scrimmage yds|
Still, gaudy personal stats aside, there are reasons to question McCaffrey’s MVP credentials. Our Elo rankings have the Panthers as just the 13th-best team in the NFL. Typically, the league MVP — especially an offensive player — is chosen from a more successful team. Through the first five weeks of the year, Carolina’s offense has been below average. The unit ranks 23rd in total offensive EPA per play, putting them behind the 2-3 Tennessee Titans, the 1-3-1 Arizona Cardinals and the 1-4 Denver Broncos.
|Rank||team||Record||Off EPA||Off EPA/Play||Def EPA||Def EPA/Play|
Meanwhile, Carolina’s rushing attack ranks 16th in expected points added, despite the large workload McCaffrey has shouldered. Somewhat shockingly, the part of the offense for which McCaffrey plays such an outsized role has contributed negative 1.54 expected points added to the team’s total offensive production. His 274 yards receiving may help mitigate the rushing losses, but the Panthers’ middling 3-2 record is probably best explained by the performance of their seventh-ranked defense rather than McCaffrey’s exploits.
And there are still other reasons to question McCaffrey’s MVP candidacy. For instance, it’s unclear whether he’ll be able to stay healthy operating under such a heavy workload. McCaffrey left last week’s game against Jacksonville because of cramps, and he missed practice Wednesday with a back injury.1
Meanwhile, when McCaffrey was out of the game last week, backup running back Reggie Bonnafon stepped in and took his second handoff of the game 59 yards to the house.
The notion of running back replaceability isn’t a new one, but plays like this underscore that rushing success is often the result of scheme and blocking as much as it is ball-carrier talent. You don’t need an elite talent to run through openings like the one the Panthers offensive line created for Bonnafon.
Yet, even with his linemen helping McCaffrey to historic numbers, the Panthers are a long way from being elite on offense. And that, more than anything, may be the biggest hole in McCaffrey’s MVP resume: When an offense isn’t very good, we should probably look elsewhere for the league’s most valuable player.
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CORRECTION (Oct. 11, 2019, 10:12 a.m.): A previous version of the second table in this article incorrectly listed the New England Patriots’ record through Week 5. Their record was 5-0, not 5-1.