CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As Curtis Samuel craned his neck to assess the action across the field midway through the first quarter of the Panthers’ 42-28 win over the Buccaneers on Sunday, he caught what might have been the play of the game.
The Carolina wide receiver watched teammate Christian McCaffrey catch a screen pass, hurdle Tampa Bay cornerback Carlton Davis without breaking stride and burst down the field for about 25 more yards.
“It was crazy,” Samuel told Sporting News. “I was running down the field on the opposite sideline and just see Christian running, he jumps over someone, and I’m like, ‘OK, Christian. You got hops!’ It was amazing to see him make a play like that and keep going.”
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Such elusive moves have characterized McCaffrey’s breakout second season after he averaged just 3.7 yards per carry as a rookie. Against the Bucs, McCaffrey ran for 79 yards and two touchdowns, caught five passes for 78 more yards and made several highlight-reel maneuvers like the one that wowed Samuel.
The 22-year-old running back is becoming another one of the NFL’s new-age offensive stars, able to line up in the backfield, the slot or out wide to cause matchup problems. His numbers — 880 all-purpose yards and five touchdowns — rival those of Tyreek Hill in Kansas City and Alvin Kamara in New Orleans.
On a stretch run in the second quarter Sunday, McCaffrey nimbly avoided going out of bounds as he cut upfield, allowing him to turn a short gain into a 35-yard dash. He took seven first-down rushes at least four yards, putting Carolina in manageable down-and-distance positions throughout the contest.
After almost every drive, quarterback Cam Newton, wearing a towel over his head, sat on the bench beside McCaffrey, who donned a red baseball cap. While they had plenty to talk about — Carolina tallied over 400 yards and dropped 35 first-half points on Tampa Bay — McCaffrey’s hurdle stood out.
“For him to keep his balance,” Newton said, “I know you all have seen that commercial with him and (JB Smoove) — he was like a cat.”
For his part, McCaffrey struggled to explain the move, chalking it up to an in-the-moment reaction to a defender diving at his legs. He wasn’t sure how he managed to maintain balance following the landing.
“Man, I honestly don’t know,” McCaffrey said. “I’d love to sit here and go through my mindset in that, but I don’t remember. It’s very instinctual.”
It was a play reminiscent of the weekly highlights he delivered while almost winning the Heisman Trophy at Stanford in 2016. Several of his Panthers teammates who watched him grind in training camp and in the preseason, getting an up-close look at his abilities, are not surprised he’s translating his college production to the pro level.
“He’s a hell of an athlete,” fullback Alex Armah said.
Added tackle Taylor Moton: “I’ve known from day one he’s a special player. I just want to do everything I can to open up holes for him.”
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Carolina has scored at least 35 points in back-to-back games, and like many of the NFL’s top offenses, the Panthers are overwhelming opponents with versatile, quick skill-position players all over the field. McCaffrey is complemented by Samuel and DJ Moore, who each took wide receiver reverses for huge gains against the Buccaneers.
That gives the team confidence entering the second half of the season.
“When it’s clicking, it’s clicking,” Newton said. “As far as the talent level on this team, it’s extremely scary.”
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