When the Carolina Panthers drafted running back Christian McCaffrey with the eighth overall pick in the NFL draft, the conversation immediately turned to how Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula will use him. The most common sentiment out there is that McCaffrey is a third down back in addition to slot receiver. When lined up as a runner, it is assumed his role will resemble that of Fozzy Whitaker. Sweeps, screens, making moves outside of the tackles.
For some reason this all sounded so familiar to me. It all seemed like a strange case of deja vu. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula has a high first round draft pick that is assumed to be a role player on third downs. Then it hit me. This is not the first time this story has played out. I had heard it all before.
In 1997, Mike Shula was the offensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That year the Buccaneers drafted a quick running back named Warrick Dunn in the first round. Living in Tampa Bay at the time, I can remember the story lines leading up to the season. This article from 1997 sums it up pretty well.
“Much tongue-clucking followed the Buccaneers’ selection of Dunn with the 12th pick in this year’s draft. At 5’8” and 178 pounds, Dunn, a star running back at Florida State, was projected by many observers as a third-down back who could return some kicks. “We thought he’d be better than that,” says McKay. “And we decided, if that’s all he is, we’ll take him, because we desperately needed somebody to make big plays.”
You can replace a few names in that excerpt and it could be a current day Carolina Panthers article, couldn’t it?
Once the 1997 NFL season started the narrative quickly changed for Dunn. Mike Shula recognized Dunn’s talent for between the tackles running and was calling those plays for him. Indeed, Shula saw Dunn’s talent even though it was outside of conventional thought. The result was Dunn running the ball 224 times for nearly a thousand yard and a NFL rookie of the year award.
Here are a few highlights for your consideration. Notice the straight ahead running and the overall similarities between the two runners.
Fast forward to this year, those lessons from 1997 should play a big role in the career of Christian McCaffrey. Mike Shula is no longer a first year coordinator. Twenty years later experience is on his side. Shula no doubt remembers the shifty back named Warrick when he hears the “third down back” McCaffrey talk.
As a result, Christian McCaffrey could be Mike Shula’s second rookie of the year running back.