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Christian McCaffrey Is the Future of Football

Golden Tate navigates defenders like a tailback, and Ty Montgomery wears no. 88 yet lines up in the backfield. Flexibility is all the rage in the NFL, but McCaffrey and the Panthers are pushing the concept to its limit: How flexible can an offense actually get?

Collage of Christian McCaffrey catching and running Getty Images/Ringer illustration

As we’ve already told you, football can be hard to understand. Playbooks weigh as much as physics textbooks, and when you hear a quarterback barking in the huddle, it can sound like you’ve intercepted an alien transmission. For there to be order in the chaos, the game requires people who have mastered its specifics. Welcome to Masterminds Week, where we’ll spotlight those who have shown expertise in various aspects of the sport—from the big and all-encompassing to the random and hyperspecific.

One of the most bizarre entries in Sports Illustrated’s extensive catalogue is a 1990 piece in which football coaches complained about how teams no longer used the same players on offense and defense.

Alabama coach Gene Stallings sounded off: “Today we put in a player to rush the passer, another to run a deep route, someone else to catch a pass out of the backfield, somebody to cover that. ... When I played, the only time we came out was when we did bad.” Meanwhile, Penn State coach Joe Paterno, incredibly, argued that getting rid of this specialization, and making everyone a two-way player, would help “values” return.

Yet, while their ideas and motivations seem totally misguided, the past these old guys were clinging to is looking more like than NFL’s future than ever before.

We won’t see two-way players any time soon, but football’s offensive personnel are becoming so flexible that in about a decade, offenses might be made up of five linemen, a quarterback, and a bunch of gifted athletes doing anything to get open on any given play. Players like Carolina Panthers rookies Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel will change the future of schemes. McCaffrey, so far in the preseason, has lined up in the backfield, in the slot, and near the sideline as a wideout. This, mind you, is in the preseason, when teams are least likely to show their true plans for a player; come the regular season, McCaffrey might be able to do all of that, play all the defensive positions, coach the team, and do that thing from Superman where he goes around the globe so fast he turns back time.

Football players are all stronger and faster now than they were in Stallings and Paterno’s day. A decade of high school and college schemes that spread the ball out and use running backs and wide receivers interchangeably has created Swiss army knives across the NFL.

I asked McCaffrey what he wanted his role to be in five years, considering where the NFL is heading. He answered in broad, ambitious terms befitting his athletic profile.

“What I would like to be known as is a playmaker. I would like to line up everywhere on the field and be a mismatch, inside the tackles, outside the tackles, be an elite pass catcher, route runner, everything,” he said. “I want to be able to make plays—big plays.”

Let’s be clear: There will never be a time when all the positions on an NFL football field are interchangeable. Paterno and Stallings’s wishes won’t ever come to pass. The Dutch soccer team did that in the 1970s, it was called “Total Football,” and it was brilliant—but there is no one in soccer who weighs 200 pounds more than the guy 3 yards to his right. That puts a limit on interchangeability.

However, anything other than quarterback and offensive line is fair game. Mike Shula, the Panthers’ offensive coordinator, said the key to unlocking true flexibility in an offense is for the team to have a group of players that, without substitutions, can provide a dramatically different look from snap to snap.

“What you want to do is a lot of stuff out of the same personnel grouping,” Shula said. “All of the sudden if you want to do something [new], you can just switch what you want to do to another guy.”

When anyone can split out wide, anyone can run the ball, and anyone can catch a pass, “there are no tendencies there” that a defense can pick up on, Shula said. Film study is still the backbone of NFL strategy, and if you give defenses a dramatically different play on each down out of groupings and formations that look the same, there are no tells, and that’s a huge problem for defenses that rely on repetition of plays to figure out what’s coming.

This sort of scheme is what the NFL is trending toward; Carolina’s just pushing it faster than anyone else. The NFL’s personnel groups are becoming more homogenous by the year. The 11 personnel, in which teams employ one running back, one tight end, and three receivers, has become the default offensive option for teams, who ran it 60 percent of the time last season, according to Football Outsiders. The looks NFL teams are throwing out are more vanilla because they help the offense and because the players are what now make the game dynamic. This is a mismatch league. When these flexible players take on their slower counterparts, this happens:

While McCaffrey looks poised to perfect the form of the flexible football player, the league already has plenty of practitioners.

Golden Tate, the Detroit Lions star, has forced 53 missed tackles since 2015, according to Pro Football Focus. He is, of course, a wide receiver, and no one at his position has been as elusive over the past two years.

Tate was a running back in high school who, on his recruiting visit to Notre Dame, found the wide receiver drills at practice more interesting.

“I watched Rhema McKnight and Jeff Samardzija at practice,” Tate said. “[Former Notre Dame coach] Charlie Weis noticed and said, ‘I have no problem with you playing receiver.’ I couldn’t run routes but I knew I could catch and had great hand-eye coordination.”

Tate said he takes pride in being near the top of the league in both yards after catch and yard after contact. “My mom always told me, ‘They can’t hit what they can’t catch,’” he said.

The reason Tate is so elusive is that he runs like a running back. He already has a plan before the quarterback even releases the ball toward him. “When I come out of break, I can take a picture and visualize people are coming at me,” Tate said. “I’ll take a mental picture; I take an educated guess on what angle they are going to take, then time my steps.”

If Tate turned himself from a running back into a wide receiver, the Packers reversed the transition by turning wide receiver Ty Montgomery into a running back. Last year, with his backfield ravaged by injuries, coach Mike McCarthy figured Montgomery could handle the duties. “Even at Stanford, Ty always had running back characteristics,” McCarthy said.

When Montgomery makes a cut, he said, it’s with a lower center of gravity than a normal receiver. The flexibility of his game is more of a necessity than anything: “Because there’s such an emphasis on the passing game, every running back has to be able to run routes. I don’t even know if the third-down back is a thing anymore.”

McCarthy said the future is trending toward these athletes because teams want to get their players in space, full stop. The more places you can line them up in, the easier that is to do. “Everyone talks about carries, but for players like Ty and Christian, it’s about touches,” McCarthy said. “If they could touch the ball 15 or 18 times a game, it doesn’t matter where they play.”

More than 70 percent of Division I football players also play another sport, according to the NCAA. In order to be one of the athletes who will dominate the future of football, the thinking goes, you better be well-rounded.

McCaffrey played football, basketball, baseball, and track throughout his youth and said that basketball taught him much of what he can now pull off on the football field: jab steps, explosion on the first step, setting a defender up for a move. Tate was a baseball draft pick, which explains his hand-eye coordination.

Jabrill Peppers, the Cleveland Browns “safety” who played snaps at 11 positions at Michigan, said that while he’s always focused on football, he honed many of his athletic traits in track and hoops. “You actually learn how to run in track—there’s a right way and a wrong way to run,” Peppers said. “You need to know about shin angles, keeping your foot pointed up so you learn to land on the balls of your feet to get more burst and more pop from the ground.” And playing one-on-one defense in basketball translated to playing man coverage in the secondary.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera said that these all-around athletes who can do anything in any sport are the key to the future of the NFL. Put them on a football field and let them do whatever they do best.

“Everything is so specialized now in youth sports,” Rivera said. “But when you get these kinds of athletes and they’ve been developed, you see the way they grew up and the different sports they play. Most of the guys with the best hand-eye coordination in football are guys who played baseball, learning how to glove it, learning how to catch it one-handed, catching it on the run, laying out to catch it.”

“It’s amazing,” he continued, “how different sports translate to different positions.”

When the Carolina Panthers were scouting McCaffrey and Samuel, who played H-back at Ohio State, they realized that raw athleticism gets players only so far. Instincts that apply across the positional spectrum are way more important.

“With those guys, you have to see them with the ball in their hands and then you ask: ‘What did he do to get it in his hands?’” Rivera said. “You look at the tape and you say, ‘Oh wow, look at that, he knows how to sit down in the zone, how to run away from man coverage.’ You see this creativity.”

Rivera also said that Stanford’s offense, which blended the pro style and the spread style, was a perfect mixture for McCaffrey’s skill set. “You look at it and say, ‘Wow, we have to find a way to exploit that.’”

Buffalo Bills general manager Brandon Beane said that this generation of offensive coordinators “does a great job of getting their running back getting matched up against their linebacker. The running back is more athletic, and they get them the ball in space, and they know ‘my guy is going to beat your guy.’ So you’ve got to have guys all over the field who can keep up. It’s a chess match on both sides of the ball.”

Rivera agreed that a similar movement is now happening on defense.

“Every team has a 6-foot-3 wide receiver that they put in the slot and they come down and just crush these nickel[backs] who are under 6-foot,” he said. “So that prompted us to say, ‘Let’s put Shaq Thompson there.’” The Panthers drafted Thompson in the first round of 2015 as a nominal linebacker; he was the no. 1 safety in the nation coming out of high school and was also once a minor league baseball player. Rivera has used him all across Carolina’s defensive alignment.

“He could go out as a regular linebacker,” Rivera said. “He’d play in space. A couple of our opponents kept trying to create these mismatches with him, and we kept saying, ‘Go ahead!’ We’ve got Thomas Davis on one side, Shaq on the other—try to create those mismatches.”

Finally, players on offense and defense are being asked to do everything.