It was a fitting start to Christian McCaffrey’s junior season that his best play of Stanford’s 2016 opener — and perhaps his best play of the entire year — didn’t end up counting. The Cardinal’s campaign was fewer than 10 minutes old, and with Stanford leading Kansas State 3–0, McCaffrey drew a crowd of Wildcats gunners while fielding a punt at his own 3-yard line.
One K-State player overran the Stanford star and whiffed on an arm tackle from the side. Two more converged and spun him as a top, but like the one from Inception, McCaffrey stayed upright. A fourth dove and missed. The fifth and sixth ran into each other, McCaffrey already gone from the gap between them. Numbers seven and eight caught face masks full of grass 5 yards apart. A ninth couldn’t shift his momentum in time to keep up with the returner’s cut at the 20. A 10th was not faster than a speeding bullet, so he couldn’t catch McCaffrey in the open field.
Fireworks. Touchdown. Gus Johnson doing his Gus Johnson thing on the call. Or not. It turned out that defender number five fell into his teammate after a block in the back, a penalty that cost Stanford the touchdown — although viewers may have been forgiven for assuming that the player’s loss of motor control was a natural byproduct of trying to catch college football’s most magical runner.
McCaffrey performed plenty of tricks last year en route to setting the NCAA record for single-season all-purpose yardage (3,864), previously held by Barry Sanders, and finishing second in Heisman Trophy voting. Before his follow-up effort, he made the typical magazine profile circuit and received the requisite amount of preseason hype, and then he went out against Kansas State and did that.
Except later in September, his Cardinal were stomped by Washington, 44–6 on national television, and McCaffrey suffered an injury in another blowout loss to Washington State a week later. Stanford’s dream of reaching the College Football Playoff was gone, and McCaffrey’s national exposure with it; matchups against Notre Dame and Oregon lost their luster as those two programs failed to reach double-digit wins combined. If you don’t receive the Pac-12 Network and still don’t know where to find Fox Sports 1 in your cable package, you haven’t seen him play a full game since September.
You won’t get another chance. On Monday, McCaffrey announced his intention to skip next week’s Sun Bowl to focus on preparing for the 2017 NFL draft — a completely defensible decision, given McCaffrey’s earning potential at the next level and the chance that a bowl-game injury could cost a draftee millions. The choice followed a similar one made by Leonard Fournette days earlier and immediately garnered reactions ranging from understanding to outrage. More than that, McCaffrey’s decision accelerates his coming transformation from College Legend to NFL Question Mark.
At Stanford, McCaffrey’s multi-hyphenate performances — as runner, receiver, and returner — both made his star and cemented his legacy after he set the all-purpose record last year and quietly led the FBS in that category again in the 2016 regular season.
For NFL teams, though, that flexibility could smear him with the dreaded “tweener” label: not as powerful as draft-classmate Fournette, not as pure a runner as Dalvin Cook, and so on. Yet if anything, those multivaried contributions have obscured his running talent. Since 2000, McCaffrey ranks fifth among power-conference running backs in yards per carry (minimum 600 career rushes; he’s in a near-statistical tie with Fournette), and he’s been just as proficient during his underappreciated junior year in that facet of the game.
In his record-setting sophomore season, McCaffrey averaged 144 yards per game on 6.0 yards per carry; this year, he averaged 146 per game on 6.3 per carry. Eight rushing touchdowns in 2015 turned into 13 this season, and seven rushes of 30-plus yards (tied for 16th nationally) jumped to 10 (tied for fourth).
The last month of McCaffrey’s Stanford career will go down as his best, numbers-wise. His most recent five-game stretch (the eighth through 12th games on Stanford’s 2016 schedule, all wins) represents his most productive such span in terms of rushing yards (991), rushing touchdowns (10), and — since he became Stanford’s feature back — yards per carry (7.5). His second-most-productive five-game stretch is the one before that (Stanford’s seventh through 11th games this year); before that one, he had never before produced more than 829 yards and six touchdowns in any five-game period in his career.
McCaffrey isn’t solely reliant on his breakaway speed to produce those numbers, either (though over his last month, it certainly helped). Before his breakout year in 2015, he spent an offseason studying LeSean McCoy’s tempo behind the offensive line, and he communicates with Le’Veon Bell as “video buddies.” He now mimics McCoy and Bell in his stutter-stepping patterns out of the backfield, with an extra beat of hesitation often allowing the Stanford back to spy a running lane.
He wields a vicious, jumping cutback move, as well — another tic in the mold of McCoy and Bell, who make NFL players miss in much the same way McCaffrey twisted a trio of Cal defenders on a 90-yard touchdown run in November, the longest rush of his career.
Patience near the line and fluidity in the open field make for a dynamic combination, and if he follows those two models, he could succeed as a lead runner in the NFL. But it’s not a sure thing. The speedy, multithreat design never really translated for former Arkansas standout Darren McFadden, it didn’t generate the expected level of production for USC legend Reggie Bush, and it lasted for maybe a season and a half for former Clemson star C.J. Spiller — all top-10 picks, with a single Pro Bowl appearance among them. Sometimes, game-breaking talent doesn’t work against NFL defenses: McCaffrey has 11 carries of 30-plus yards in his last 12 games, while Bush has just 11 such gains in 11 years in the NFL.
In a recent mock draft, ESPN analyst Todd McShay had McCaffrey going 32nd overall, and fourth among running backs. Pro Football Focus didn’t include McCaffrey in its latest first-round forecast (which incidentally would give him another similarity with McCoy and Bell, two former second-round selections). Even after April’s draft, the arguments about his pro prospects undoubtedly will prove exhausting.
So let’s not start with McCaffrey-in-the-NFL talk just yet. We won’t see him in cardinal and white again, but we can take the time to appreciate what we have already witnessed — and what many may have missed.
To the extent that amassing 6,191 all-purpose yards in a 25-game span is practically unfathomable — Bush finished nearly 1,000 yards short of that total between his sophomore and junior seasons, despite playing 26 games — McCaffrey’s statistical accumulation over the last two years has been an exercise in consistency: 6-yard run after 6-yard run after 12-yard catch. Those plays are successful and winning, and they certainly mesh with Stanford’s grinding ethos. But to the extent that McCaffrey is also explosive, exciting, and extraordinarily talented, he’s also had his share of capital-M Moments.
This, in the spirit of a year in review, is what happened the first time McCaffrey touched the ball in 2016.
And this is what happened the first time he returned a punt.
No matter what McCaffrey was doing with his touches — even throwing! — he generated big plays up and down the Pacific coast. He set a school record with 243 rushing yards in a 2015 rout of UCLA; he accrued more than 700 combined rushing yards against the Oregon schools; and he took a particular delight in tormenting Cal, setting the rivalry’s single-game rushing record (284) in 2016 and tallying three rushing touchdowns, one receiving touchdown, and a kick return touchdown against the Golden Bears over the last two years.
The highlight videos are voluminous, and together they present the history of a generational college talent, regardless of whether he succeeds in the NFL. Just like we’ll always have the Reggie Bush Fresno State run, we’ll always have the Christian McCaffrey Rose Bowl medley.
But then again, betting on a Bush-lite career path sells McCaffrey short. If his oldest highlight is any indication, he’s been prepared to score — and celebrate — like an NFL star for a long time.