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Sunday Morning Coming Down: Why I'm optimistic about Christian McCaffrey landing with the Carolina Panthers

Matt Harmon digs into some of the history of running quarterbacks who have evoloved to show why Christian McCaffrey and Cam Newton are actually a perfect pair.

I'm buried in numbers on a regular basis. Whether it's from those I chart for Reception Perception, nuggets dug up from scouring game logs or even passed along from the NFL's Next Gen Stats tracking data, I'm not short on stats. Some of my co-workers even assigned me the mockingly authoritative "captain spreadsheet" nickname.  

However, I'm not a fan of all football stats. To be quite honest with you, there are more than few that I actively dislike, or find flat-out terrible and outright deceptive in the pursuit of understanding what matters on the football field. 

The statistics that I tend to gravitate toward as items that are consequential and descriptive of the reality of the game are those that can actually be well-explained in a typical football sense. This is why last offseason, when I read Brian Malone's discovery that running quarterbacks throw to their running backs less often than the average signal-caller, it made so much sense. It's rare that a runner out of the backfield is the primary read on a play call, more often they are a check down option and third or later in the progression. The running quarterback is less likely to hit that third or fourth progression before their instincts take over and they break the pocket to run. Therefore, running backs playing alongside a mobile passer are less likely to see as many targets as their counterparts teamed with traditional pocket players.  

Malone's findings backed up that intuitive "football-based" conclusion. From 2000 to 2015, among quarterbacks (10 total) with both 250 pass attempts and a run-pass ratio of at least 1:5, only pre-conversion Terrelle Pryor of the Oakland Raiders threw to his running backs at a rate above the 20.9% target share league average.  

When the objective statistics verify conclusions us as intuitive observers of the game of football could discern; that's when you really have something.

It is the same line of thinking displayed in Malone's conclusions that have some individuals, even a handful of incredibly bright minds, less than thrilled with universally-adored prospect Christian McCaffrey landing with the Carolina Panthers and their rushing-inclined franchise quarterback. Despite the fact that the Panthers ranked 8th in run play percentage last year and even 2nd overall in Cam Newton's 2015 MVP season, the thought is that Newton and company won't create the ecosystem to unlock McCaffrey's truly special skills as a pass-catcher.

Since that fear is indeed rooted in my criteria of passing not only the intuitive football sniff test but is also backed up by a strong statistical study, I get it. However, I'd argue that there is reason to believe that Newton and his team will, in fact, create the environment where McCaffrey can access his ceiling as both a true feature runner and a receiver. Coming to that conclusion does require a touch of imagination, but it also comes back to that same word Ron Rivera offered up at the close of 2016 to describe where his team needed to head in the coming years.

Evolve. It's what Rivera indicated needed to come next for both his now-veteran quarterback and the Panthers offense as a whole. Therein lies the rub; the running quarterback as a staple of an NFL offense is still relatively new. We're in a bit of uncharted territory with Newton as a mobile franchise quarterback as he heads into the second act of his pro career. 

Unlike what the Panthers now want from Newton, we often don't see running quarterbacks get the chance to evolve. Most of the quarterbacks from Malone's study since 2000 flamed out. Among the 10 quarterbacks in the group, only Newton, Russel Wilson and Tyrod Taylor, whose grip on his job seems tenuous, are slated to open 2017 as starters. Terrelle Pryor switched positions and Kordell Stewart struggled to find a steady home. Robert Griffin and Colin Kaepernick both remain unsigned after failing to sustain the early career momentum both enjoyed after hot starts. Tim Tebow and Vince Young are out of the league after being cast aside by the organizations that drafted them despite their strong career win percentage. Mike Vick is the only one of the group to truly see his career out from start to finish, despite a significant off-field bump in the road. 

Due to the revelation that we are headed into somewhat uncharted career water for Cam Newton's second act, I'm not only inclined to believe Rivera's intentions for the team to evolve but also I'm willing to open myself up to the possibility that what has always been for Newton's approach will not always be what's to come for the almost 28-year old quarterback. Even better, some small historical precedent does exist for Rivera's evolutionary blueprint. 

RankPlayerYearAgeTmGGSAttYdsY/ATDY/GStarting seasons (12+g)
1 Bobby Douglass 1972 25 CHI 14 14 141 968 6.87 8 69.1 2
2 Cam Newton 2015 26 CAR 16 16 132 636 4.82 10 39.8 6
3 Cam Newton 2012 23 CAR 16 16 127 741 5.83 8 46.3 6
4 Cam Newton 2011 22 CAR 16 16 126 706 5.6 14 44.1 6
5 Michael Vick 2006 26 ATL 16 16 123 1039 8.45 2 64.9 6
6 Tim Tebow 2011 24 DEN 14 11 122 660 5.41 6 47.1 0
7 Robert Griffin 2012 22 WAS 15 15 120 815 6.79 7 54.3 2
8 Michael Vick 2004 24 ATL 15 15 120 902 7.52 3 60.1 6
9 Randall Cunningham 1990 27 PHI 16 16 118 942 7.98 5 58.9 7
10 Russell Wilson 2014 26 SEA 16 16 118 849 7.19 6 53.1 5
11 Michael Vick 2002 22 ATL 15 15 113 777 6.88 8 51.8 6
12 Cam Newton 2013 24 CAR 16 16 111 585 5.27 6 36.6 6
13 Daunte Culpepper 2002 25 MIN 16 16 106 609 5.75 10 38.1 4
14 Randall Cunningham 1989 26 PHI 16 16 104 621 5.97 4 38.8 7
15 Colin Kaepernick 2014 27 SFO 16 16 104 639 6.14 1 39.9 2
16 Tyrod Taylor 2015 26 BUF 14 14 104 568 5.46 4 40.6 2
17 Cam Newton 2014 25 CAR 14 14 103 539 5.23 5 38.5 6
18 Russell Wilson 2015 27 SEA 16 16 103 553 5.37 1 34.6 5
19 Michael Vick 2005 25 ATL 15 15 102 597 5.85 6 39.8 6
20 Steve McNair 1997 24 TEN 16 16 101 674 6.67 8 42.1 8
21 Michael Vick 2010 30 PHI 12 12 100 676 6.76 9 56.3 6

Since the league-merger, a quarterback has recorded 100 or more rush attempts in a season just 21 times. With only 10 total quarterbacks on the list, several players did it multiple times in their career. Of those signal callers, only five managed to achieve some level of career stability (defined as more than two seasons with 12-plus starts). That list includes two active players in Russel Wilson and Cam Newton. Mike Vick, Randall Cunningham and the late Steve McNair from years past round out the list.

Newton's early years have indeed played to the statics when it comes to running quarterbacks. Panthers backfield players haven't cracked 60 combined catches since his rookie year in 2011, when Jonathan Stewart snagged a career-high 47. Wilson's Seahawks never found much use for a pass-catching back, either. Of course, there is a chicken and egg discussion to have with both of these players since neither played with a weaponry receiving back, as DeAngelo Williams and Marshawn Lynch never recorded 50 catches at any point in their career. Yet, for this study, we'll just assume it's the cause of the running quarterback. 

Mike Vick showed some willingness to throw to his running backs at different points in his career. His backfield players eclipsed 70 catches with the Falcons in 2002 when Warrick Dunn was in his prime and pushed triple digits in 2010 during his magic season with LeSean McCoy and the Eagles. Otherwise, his backs fell under 60 combined catches. Randall Cunningham doesn't fit the mold quite as neatly, as his running backs were almost always featured in the passing game.

If you truly want a historical piece of evidence for a rushing-inclined quarterback evolving and backfield receptions trending up, your examples are Daunte Culpepper and Steve McNair. Granted, neither had the running prowess, usage or production of Newton, but their seasons with 12 or more starts still show a path for him to follow.

YearAgeTmGRushRush/GCmp%RateTD%RB rec.
2000 23 MIN 16 89 5.6 62.7 98 7 52
2002 25 MIN 16 106 6.6 60.7 75.3 3.3 64
2003 26 MIN 14 73 5.2 65 96.4 5.5 94
2004 27 MIN 16 88 5.5 69.2 110.9 7.1 106

Culpepper eclipsed 100 rushing attempts in a single season just once in 2002. His backfield players that year managed just 64 total catches. However, as Culpepper aged, throwing to his running backs increased as his rush attempts took a dip. It all came to a head in his Pro Bowl 2004 campaign. At 27 years old, Culpepper's rush attempts per game fell more than a full carry from the 6.6 he held in 2002. His running backs were a major receiving factor in that hyper-efficient season, as four Vikings backs (Onterrio Smith, Michael Bennett, Mewelde Moore and Moe Williams) all amassed more than 20 receptions. Culpepper's career began to sputter after that season due to injuries and he never again started 12 or more games. However, the early signs of evolution were there for the gifted Minnesota passer. 

We saw Steve McNair function for a longer stretch than Culpepper and a similar, albeit less dramatic, trajectory unfolded. 

YearAgeTmGRushRush/GCmp%RateTD%RB rec.
1997 24 TEN 16 101 6.3 52 70.4 3.4 37
1998 25 TEN 16 77 4.8 58.7 80.1 3 43
2000 27 TEN 16 72 4.5 62.6 83.2 3.8 67
2001 28 TEN 15 75 5 61.3 90.2 4.9 55
2002 29 TEN 16 82 5.1 61.2 84 4.5 63
2003 30 TEN 14 38 2.7 62.5 100.4 6 49
2005 32 TEN 14 32 2.3 61.3 82.4 3.4 62
2006 33 BAL 16 45 2.8 63 82.5 3.4 74

Indeed, during the one season where McNair cracked the triple digits in rush attempts his backfield players combined for just 37 catches. However, as his career went on, that number increased. His final two seasons with 12-plus starts saw his rushing skills nearly completely evaporate and his running backs became even bigger staples of the passing distribution. McNair's lone stable season in Baltimore saw him take off running 45 times but his backfield players handle over 70 catches. Despite playing with a true grinder in Jamal Lewis, McNair made use of ancillary backs like Musa Smith as receivers. The former Oilers top-five pick might be the best example of some sort of career second-act evolution for running quarterbacks.  

While recent examples of rushing quarterbacks do indeed show that they are less likely to target their running backs, revisiting the cases of Daunte Culpepper and Steve McNair show that a change in approach for these players is inevitable to survive at the NFL level. It's apparent that Ron Rivera and the Panthers know that time is now for Cam Newton, especially after a rough 2016 season where even the former No. 1 overall pick looked weary from the beating. The cases of those quarterbacks also show that passing to players out of the backfield can be a natural part of that evolution.  

Carolina sent a clear message in drafting Christian McCaffrey 8th overall in the 2017 NFL Draft. Times are changing in Panther nation. A malaise offense that grew stale, slow and unsustainably volatile got an injection of speed and the makings of a matchup nightmare when Dave Gettleman opted for the Stanford product with his first pick. If you didn't believe it, he doubled down, as he's wont to do, at the 40th overall spot by taking another slasher with 4.3 speed in Curtis Samuel of Ohio State to play slot receiver.  

The Panthers offense of the last three years was largely based around some of the more high-degree of difficulty passes assigned to any starting quarterback in the NFL. Newton had to wait for slow-developing routes to come to fruition despite working with largely below average separators in Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess. It resulted in Cam Newton throwing more passes into tight windows than any other quarterback in the NFL last season, per the NFL's Next Gen Stats tracking.  

Drafting McCaffrey wasn't just about securing the future at running back, it accomplished the goal of giving Newton a player who could flash open early in-route and provide him with easier completions. He signaled evolution and that what has been with Cam Newton will not always be. The Panthers clearly signaled intentions along with a handful of evolutionary indicators has me brightly optimistic about this pairing and Christian McCaffrey barreling through his destined to be special NFL career on way to unlocking his ceiling.