PALO ALTO, Calif. — The legend of Christian McCaffrey has mushroomed enough that he has gone from fantastic all-purpose back all the way to sociological indicator. We can view the very culture through the prism of Stanford’s kinetic No. 5 and his so-called “struggle” this season, and we can determine that we are all fussy, unreasonable and overstimulated.
McCaffrey stands No. 2 in the nation in rushing, at 145.3 yards per game. He stands No. 2 in all-purpose yardage, at 211.7. In a hard fracas last Saturday night against UCLA, he reminded anyone willing to look that in addition to his ability to dazzle, he is also a between-the-tackles bruiser. Yet because the first three games of McCaffrey’s junior year haven’t lavished the explosive plays he left strewn across last autumn, Cardinal Coach David Shaw and running backs coach Lance Taylor wound up having a little conversation Saturday night in the Rose Bowl locker room.
“Coach Shaw and I kind of joked about that in the locker room afterward,” Taylor said. “Just in terms of, he got a bunch of questions, Coach Shaw did, and Christian got a bunch of postgame questions about them doing such a nice job keeping him held in check and it was like” — Taylor laughed briefly here — “ ‘How far we’ve come.’ That he has 100- and-whatever number of rushing yards and that’s ‘holding him in check.’ But I do think that there is a little bit of, you know, the expectation level has skyrocketed because his numbers were astronomical, or ‘video-game-ish,’ you could say, after last year.”
In a telling and funny moment after his 138 rushing yards against UCLA, McCaffrey fielded an earnest question about being kept “quiet,” and said, with fine sarcasm, “Thank you.” He said at one point, “They didn’t kick to me at all, but I don’t look at stats at all. I’m happy with the win.”
He would be happy with the same Friday night when the No. 7 Cardinal visits No. 10 Washington (4-0) in Seattle. Across Stanford’s 3-0 start, McCaffrey’s kick- and punt-return opportunities have dwindled to a paucity, with 0.667 punt returns per game (against 1.07 last year) and one kickoff return per game (against 2.64 last year).
His per-game rushing average bests his 144.2 of last year, but his lack of opportunities on special teams have left him shy of his all-purpose average of 276 from 2015. For one thing, said special teams coach Pete Alamar, “We run into a lot of people who will just intentionally kick high and short and force a lot of fair catches.”
For another, the old poker games of kickoff guesswork have intensified: reading a kicker’s alignment as a way of reading his kick direction, counting his number of steps (four? six?), detecting his angle, detecting the angle of the tee and, really, viewing statistics properly. If teams won’t kick to McCaffrey, that stress often comes with a field-position cost. “Really, that is the relevant stat, always,” Alamar said. “Where’s your average start of drive?”
It comes also with a bedazzlement cost, perhaps wringing sighs from spectators. “We’ve seen so many unbelievable plays,” Shaw said Tuesday after practice, “that every time he touches the ball, even in away stadiums, even on the road, when he touches the ball, the crowd starts to go to a fever pitch, and then he gets tackled, and everybody kind of goes back down. Like, we were expecting superhuman things from him. Which for me is fine. Which is great. Because it doesn’t weigh him down. He just goes out there and works. He knows those big, explosive, crazy, ridiculous games, they’ll happen when they’re supposed to happen.”
For now, Shaw said, “You know, we’ll take the victory and we’ll take his ‘measly’ 130-something yards rushing,” achieving wryness with the “measly.” Against UCLA, Shaw said, McCaffrey played “a phenomenal game,” and then Shaw waxed about the necessary two-yard gains, five-yard gains and especially the four-yard gain on third and three from the UCLA 12-yard line in the final minute.
As McCaffrey navigates the unreasonable universe he has created for himself, nobody worries about his capacity to do it. Said Taylor, “That’s why he’s got big, broad shoulders, because he can handle that type of load.” Said Shaw, “He’s one of the guys I don’t worry about.”
During the offseason, Taylor consulted others on how to coach a player through the big-splash aftermath. For one consultant, he requested a meeting with former Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts, who returned to the school after finishing second in the Heisman Trophy voting. They met in Taylor’s office for about 45 minutes, in Taylor’s recollection.
“One of the things that [Luck] said was he never wanted to be treated like a superstar or treated differently than any of the other players,” Taylor said. “He always wanted to be coached hard every single day. It was almost like for him, his mentality, he wanted to be coached harder so that his teammates respected him and never, ever thought that he was given preferential treatment, or because he was Andrew Luck, coaches weren’t coaching him hard or being as hard on him as they were the other players.”
As for McCaffrey: “That’s one of the things that makes him a special player is that no matter how great a game he has, he’s always texting me or calling me the next day, ‘Hey, coach, what did you see? What could I have done better?’ In the past couple of games, he’s had great performances and it’s, ‘Well, I still missed a couple of things. How can I get better? How can I be more patient? How can I square up the safeties on the second level?’ He wants to be coached hard. So I kind of chuckle when he said that, but it also resonated that, hey, I need to continue coaching Christian hard. I need to continue challenging him every day.”
By the assessment of Stanford strength coach Shannon Turley, McCaffrey already arrived as a freshman better prepared “physically, mentally, emotionally, maturity” than any player at any position Turley had seen. He also had lower-body and core strength Turley called “phenomenal” but has improved his upper-body strength, which has strengthened, for one thing, his pass-protection capabilities, something that often goes unnoticed.
Further, Turley finds McCaffrey “very in tune with his body, more so than any player I’ve ever coached. He knows exactly what’s going on with his body.” For a training and sports medicine staff, Turley said, “when a player can speak very intelligently and understand the terms that we want to use as the staff working with them, it makes our jobs phenomenally easier.”
Continuing: “This guy’s a sports car now. He’s a Tesla. And so we need to be able to tighten things down sometimes, loosen this up, you know, adjust the chassis, lubricate the system, change the firing ratio of the pistons. Whatever analogy you want to make to an elite sports car, that’s Christian McCaffrey. And he’s the best guy on the pit crew, because he can communicate what’s going on with the car, his body.”
In that sense, Turley defined the mission at hand this new season. When you’re a star dealing with all the other teams’ response to a star, it helps to be a Tesla, but also a pit crew.