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The Starting 11: How Real Is the Christian McCaffrey MVP Buzz?

The Panthers running back has been carrying his team while Cam Newton is out, but it may not be enough to overcome the league’s QB preference. Plus: Washington’s hopelessness continues, and the Colts showed an impressive blueprint in their win over the Chiefs.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Welcome to the Starting 11. This NFL season, we’ll be collecting the biggest story lines, highlighting the standout players, and featuring the most jaw-dropping feats of the week. Let’s dive in.

1. Christian McCaffrey’s historic start has made him the most indispensable nonquarterback in the NFL. The Panthers’ star running back racked up 233 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns in Carolina’s 34-27 win over the Jaguars on Sunday. Monster performances have been the norm for McCaffrey this season—he’s tallied at least 179 yards from scrimmage in four games already, and his 866-yard total is the second most in NFL history through a team’s first five games. The only person with more is Jim freaking Brown, who had 988 in 1963. The Panthers have made McCaffrey the centerpiece of their offense in Cam Newton’s absence, and no running back in the NFL is being asked to shoulder a bigger load. McCaffrey is even generating buzz that he could become the first running back MVP since Adrian Peterson in 2012.

Winning the MVP award is nearly impossible for a running back in the modern NFL. In a pass-happy league, quarterbacks are—by definition—the most valuable players on the field. If the Seahawks lost Russell Wilson or the Chiefs lost Patrick Mahomes, their offenses would suffer more than if the Panthers lost McCaffrey—no matter how much they’ve leaned on him so far. But if we remove quarterbacks from the equation, it would be tough to find a player who’s been more valuable to his team than McCaffrey. He’s accounted for an incredible 44.1 percent of Carolina’s scrimmage yards, and he’s kept the offense producing as backup QB Kyle Allen has struggled in the downfield passing game.

Most arguments against the value of running backs say that success at the position is a product of circumstance. There’s a reason that the Chiefs consistently feature productive receiving backs and why C.J. Anderson could seamlessly replace Todd Gurley in the Rams offense last season—and it’s not because those teams have a gift for identifying hidden talent. But many of the huge plays McCaffrey has made aren’t just the product of great blocking or play design.

On Carolina’s first drive of the game, McCaffrey took a short pass near the right sideline and shook a Jaguars defender to turn a forgettable short reception into a 10-yard gain. On the very next play, McCaffrey took a handoff, threw off linebacker Myles Jack 2 yards deep in the backfield, and took flight, flipping into the end zone for a spectacular 5-yard touchdown. Later in the first quarter, McCaffrey roasted Jack in the open field on a quick jerk route and took a pass from Allen 18 yards for another score.

Although McCaffrey claims that he’s only a pound or two heavier now than he was last season, it’s clear that he’s gotten significantly stronger in the past year. Combined with his shiftiness in space, his improved power has made him maddeningly hard to take down. McCaffrey has broken 35 tackles on 136 touches so far this season, according to Pro Football Focus, which makes him one of the most elusive backs in the NFL on a per-touch basis. His 1.87 yards per route run ranks sixth among qualified RBs. And even with the volume that McCaffrey is handling this season, he’s still been one of the most efficient rushers and receivers in the NFL.

McCaffrey is averaging 201.3 yards from scrimmage (!) in the three games that Newton has been sidelined. The Panthers have won all three, possibly saving their season in the process. But even if McCaffrey continues to produce at this rate and Carolina eventually does make the playoffs, it’s difficult to justify any nonquarterback as a legitimate MVP candidate. Still, the fact that he’s even in the conversation speaks to just how amazing he’s been for Carolina this season.

2. The Cowboys’ second straight poor showing on offense is bound to get fans riled up, but it’s not time to panic just yet. Dak Prescott completed just eight of 15 passes with two interceptions in the first half of the Cowboys’ 34-24 loss to the Packers on Sunday. His inefficiency and a rough outing for the Dallas defense against Green Bay running back Aaron Jones was enough to create an insurmountable 17-0 halftime deficit. Considering Prescott looked like a legit MVP candidate during the Cowboys’ 3-0 start, his struggles against the Packers this week and the Saints in Week 4 are concerning. But just as the Dallas offense probably wasn’t as good as the unstoppable machine it looked like against the Giants, Redskins, and Dolphins, it’s probably not as bad as it played against two very talented defenses, either.

Prescott’s first interception came on a deflected pass that was thrown just behind a wide-open Amari Cooper. When using play action early in the game, Prescott had receivers running open; the misfire to Cooper is just the sort of throw that the QB would love to have back. The second pick was the result of backup cornerback Chandon Sullivan reading Prescott’s eyes in zone coverage, falling off his man outside, and jumping a passing lane. Both interceptions fall squarely on Prescott’s shoulders, but he was far from a disaster. Dallas also had plenty of success running the ball in the first half. Ezekiel Elliott had 58 yards on nine carries, and that doesn’t include runs of 6 and 17 yards that were negated by penalties. Elliott got only three carries in the second half as his team was already down three scores.

The biggest issue for the Cowboys offense on Sunday was in pass protection. All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith was sidelined because of an ankle injury, and swing tackle Cameron Fleming had some tough moments against the Packers’ talented pass rush. Za’Darius Smith recorded a sack coming off that side on a third-and-7 in the first quarter (although Prescott didn’t help matters by drifting out of the pocket), and Smith picked up another on an inside stunt in the second quarter that Fleming and guard Connor Williams failed to pass off. If there’s one thing to be truly worried about with the Cowboys offense moving forward, it’s how this unit performs without Smith in the lineup.

3. The end of Jay Gruden’s tenure in Washington was inevitable, but the franchise’s problems run deeper than its head coach. Well, it finally happened. After a 33-7 beatdown by the Patriots and a 0-5 start, Gruden was summoned to the office at 5 a.m. Monday morning and fired. Given Washington’s lack of success during Gruden’s six seasons in charge and the limited amount of talent on this roster, the Redskins were always the most likely candidate to fire their coach in season. Now Bill Callahan will take over in the interim while the team searches for Gruden’s replacement. But no matter whom Washington convinces to take the job, the franchise’s fortunes won’t improve without more substantive changes.

Team president Bruce Allen’s press conference on Monday was a laughable exercise in shifting blame. Allen, who’s been with the organization in various capacities for the past decade, stood in front of reporters and tried to claim that Washington has enough talent to win right now. That’s not surprising—considering Allen happens to be the one in charge of finding the talent—but it’s still an insult to anyone who’s been paying attention.

Washington’s roster is barren, and there is no evidence that the current regime is even remotely equipped to change that. Gruden is an excellent play designer who helped make the Redskins a top-five passing offense with Kirk Cousins at quarterback, and earlier this season, Washington’s offense played much better than it had any right to with Case Keenum. The offensive coordinator offers will come quickly this offseason. And while Gruden gets to move on, Washington will be mired in the same old nonsense it has been since Dan Snyder bought the team 20 years ago. Snyder was happy to show Gruden the door before dawn this morning, but he had no interest in facing questions about why. He left that to Allen. And when Allen was asked why Snyder wasn’t there to explain the decision, his response said a lot about the state of this franchise: “Because I am.” Leadership at its finest, folks.

4. As Jay Gruden was losing his fifth game of the season, his brother was leading the Raiders to their second straight impressive win. Oakland’s roster still has its issues, but so far, several of Jon Gruden’s high-profile offensive moves have worked out well during the Raiders’ 3-2 start. The Raiders’ 24-21 win over the Bears in London came as a surprise to many, but it was the way Oakland won that was truly shocking. Gruden’s team dominated the Bears up front on both sides of the ball. Rookie running back Josh Jacobs finished with 123 yards on 26 carries as the offensive line controlled the line of scrimmage. Oakland caught plenty of flak for drafting Jacobs with one of its three first-round picks, but the Alabama product has looked fantastic. Only Leonard Fournette and Dalvin Cook are averaging more yards after contact per attempt, according to Pro Football Focus, and only Alvin Kamara has created more missed tackles on a per-touch basis. Oakland’s substantially improved offensive line has also paved the way for Jacobs; right tackle Trent Brown became the highest paid offensive lineman in NFL history this offseason by signing a four-year, $66 million deal, and the 6-foot-8, 380-pound mauler has helped transform the Raiders’ running game. On Sunday, Brown and fellow offseason addition Richie Incognito got considerable push the entire game against a stout Bears defensive front that lost tackle Akiem Hicks to an elbow injury early in the game.

Gruden also put together a sound game plan to slow down Khalil Mack and the Bears’ pass rush. Quarterback Derek Carr used play action on 33.3 percent of his drop backs, which is notably higher than his season average of 26 percent. Play-action throws take longer to develop, but they can also negate a strong pass rush by forcing defenders to account for the run. On plays where Carr didn’t use play action on Sunday, he often got rid of the ball quickly while Mack was chipped or double-teamed. It was a complete win for the Raiders, and sitting at 3-2, Gruden’s team is a surprise dark horse in the wild-card race.

5. Patrick Mahomes gave the Chiefs a scare when he aggravated his lingering left-ankle injury in the third quarter of Sunday’s loss to the Colts, but the bigger concern for this offense is its continued struggles up front. Mahomes downplayed his injury after the game, saying that he merely tweaked the ankle and wasn’t worried about missing any time. The reigning MVP was in noticeable pain as he played, but the same was true after he initially twisted the ankle in Week 1 against the Jaguars—and it’s fair to say that Mahomes has played just fine since. The more pressing issue relates to how the injury was reaggravated. With the Chiefs near their own goal line in the third quarter, left tackle Cam Erving—who was starting in place of the injured Eric Fisher—was driven into the backfield and right onto Mahomes’s left ankle. To make matters worse, the Chiefs also lost left guard Andrew Wylie to an ankle injury in the third quarter.

The Colts defensive front took advantage of Kansas City’s weak line. They finished with four sacks, including one from former Chiefs defensive end Justin Houston, and second-year pass rusher Kemoko Turay led the way with eight total pressures. Kansas City’s pass protection should improve when Fisher returns, but if Wylie is out for extended time, the Chiefs could experience the same sort of line injury domino effect that happened last year during the playoffs. The interior of this offensive line was already Kansas City’s only real weakness on offense heading into the season, and now it looks like the only element that could sabotage the team’s chances of returning to the AFC championship.

6. The Colts’ win over the Chiefs showed the blueprint this team needs to follow after Andrew Luck’s retirement. Getting back to the playoffs without Luck was never going to be easy, but head coach Frank Reich’s team still has more than enough talent to contend in the lackluster AFC South. The Colts have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, and that group was instrumental in paving the way for running back Marlon Mack on Sunday night. Mack finished with 132 yards on 29 carries, and the Colts controlled the ball for more than 37 minutes of game time. Mack deserves plenty of credit for the type of runner he’s become over the past two years. He’s regularly able to create more than his blocking would typically allow, and his reliable gains on the ground have become the strength of his offense now that Jacoby Brissett is playing quarterback. Combined with an excellent performance from a defense that was missing two of its best players in Darius Leonard and Malik Hooker, Indy’s win was the most impressive of the weekend.

7. With their deep passing game grounded, the Ravens offense has stagnated in the past two weeks. Baltimore managed to eek out a 26-23 win over the Steelers on Sunday, but Lamar Jackson and the passing game once again had trouble. Jackson finished 19-of-28 for just 161 yards and three interceptions against a Pittsburgh defense that’s had its share of issues this season. Two of Jackson’s picks came on balls that were initially deflected, so his box score stats are uglier than his actual performance. But this was yet another game in which the Ravens offense sputtered when Jackson was forced to complete throws in the intermediate area of the field. During the first three weeks of the season, 21 percent of Jackson’s attempts traveled at least 20 yards in the air—the third-highest rate in the league. But in his past two games, he’s thrown deep only 6.5 percent of the time, and he’s 0-for-4 on such throws. Losing Hollywood Brown to an ankle injury in the first half of Sunday’s game certainly hurt the Ravens’ ability to push the ball down the field, but no matter the cause, Baltimore will have to find solutions when teams take away the deep ball.

8. Adam Thielen’s performance on Sunday was a reminder that playing the Giants is the remedy for any flailing offense. Thielen wasn’t shy about expressing his frustration with the state of the Vikings’ passing game after last week’s loss to the Bears. But following a week full of public apologies, missed practices, and general panic in Minnesota, Kirk Cousins and his star receiver found their groove against one of the league’s worst passing defenses. Cousins accurately delivered the ball to all levels of the field and showed great touch on an arcing toss to Thielen for his first touchdown of the game. Thielen finished with seven catches for 130 yards and two scores and largely looked unguardable. The Vikings unfortunately don’t get to play the Giants every week, but Sunday’s performance is a step in the right direction.

9. Speaking of teams that are great for ending droughts: The Eagles’ pass rush got to play against the Jets’ offensive line on Sunday. Philly’s talented defensive line entered Week 5 with a league-low three sacks, which doesn’t make much sense for a group that features Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham. Cox failed to pick up his first sack of the year on Sunday, but the All Pro defensive tackle manhandled the interior of the Jets’ line as his teammates picked up a ridiculous 10 sacks in a 31-6 win. Graham was unblockable, collecting seven pressures, two hits, and three sacks on just 21 pass-rush snaps. He did most of his damage while lining up inside next to Cox, something he’ll likely continue to do with Malik Jackson on injured reserve and Timmy Jernigan still out with a broken foot. And that combination gives Philadelphia the scariest inside duo of any defense in the NFL.

10. This week’s line play moment that made me hit rewind: Marcus Davenport is starting to put it all together for the Saints. New Orleans traded away a future first-round pick to move up 13 spots and grab Davenport with the 14th pick in 2018. The former UTSA product played 13 games as a rookie and failed to make much of a consistent impact, but this season, the physical tools that intrigued the Saints so much have been apparent. Davenport has tallied 28 disrupted dropbacks on 143 pass-rush snaps, which makes him the third-most-disruptive edge rusher on a per-snap basis, according to Pro Football Focus, and he picked up another two sacks in the Saints’ 31-24 win over the Buccaneers on Sunday. At nearly 6-foot-6, Davenport’s frame is a huge asset for him coming off the edge, and he used that length to great effect on a nasty long-arm move against Bucs right tackle Demar Dotson.

11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: Patrick Mahomes is not of this world.