Running backs may be becoming more fungible, but having a strong run game is still a thing. There may be lots of ways Christian McCaffrey can fit into the NFL – and Stanford has found a few ways to use him – but however it happens, as Ted Nguyen explains, his uncanny knack for knowing what’s going on will be crucial.
What is a feel for the game?
Although different for every position, for a running back it is timing your cuts, knowing exactly where everyone on the field is and the ability to find open space. When you watch a back that has a strong feel for the game, it almost seems as if he is omniscient. How did he find that hole? How did he know that space was going to open up? How did he know that defender was there?
Those are the questions you ask when you watch great backs like Barry Sanders play. Feel for the game can be coached, but only up to a point; however, much of it must come naturally because players can’t play if they are paralyzed by trying to analyze and react to the plethora of stimuli they experience in a matter of seconds on every play.
The 2017 running back draft class has potential to be one of the most stacked classes that we’ve seen in a long time. Nick Chubb, Leonard Fournette, and Wayne Gallman are just a few of the big names that make up this class. Out of all the top backs in the country though, my favorite back to watch is Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey. He is mesmerizing to watch on the field, not solely because of his elite quickness and speed, but also because his feel for the game of football is nothing short of profound.
Vision and Patience
Vision is the ability to find the open hole. Sometimes it involves seeing – or even anticipating – the spaces that aren’t yet available. When running backs receive handoffs they are usually running into a heap of bodies colliding with each other with brutal force. It could be overwhelming to remain patient and to find daylight. Coaches teach running backs to look for certain reads and to react to them to narrow the running back’s vision to specific triggers. However, some backs can’t remain patient enough to make the right read or allow the play to develop, while some have tunnel vision from trying to focus too hard on their reads. McCaffrey seems to have the ability to effortlessly make his reads without impairing full sight of the field.
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McCaffrey is lined up in Stanford’s version of the wildcat formation. The concept is a power run. RB’s are taught to follow their guard and methodically look inside to outside (A gap to B gap to C gap, to outside). The play isn’t supposed to be a cut back play, but backs that are more advanced could see the backside linebacker (circled) in their field of vision. If the backside linebacker over pursues, the running back would cut into the lane that he vacated.
The move he makes on this play is reminiscent of LaDainian Tomlinson’s patented jump cut, but it’s his feel for the game that made this play. You could see McCaffrey look left initially but, once he sees the backside linebacker flash into his field of vision, he immediately plants and bursts right into the cutback lane for a huge gain. McCaffrey was patient enough to let the play develop and his vision allowed him to find the cutback lane.
Making Defenders Whiff with Efficiency
A lot of running backs can make people miss in open space, but the ability to efficiently make defenders miss in tight spaces sets great backs apart from the pack. It is easier to make defenders miss in open space because there is more room a defender has to account for, but on most running plays, running backs find themselves surrounded and try to find a small crease to burst through.
McCaffrey makes efficient but effective moves while in tight spaces; his moves are quick and don’t take many steps. There are backs that can make defenders miss but do so with time consuming (multiple) shoulder shakes and steps. Even if they make a defender miss, they end up getting tackled by someone else in pursuit. McCaffrey has the ability to make a defender in front of him miss before darting away from pursuit behind him.
On this play, he has four defenders in close proximity and there is a safety barreling down on him in the alley, yet he is able to make him miss with a quick cut. That efficiency resulted in an additional 20 yard gain and they wouldn’t have got him even if they were playing two-hand touch.
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You can see more clearly his juke efficiency from this angle here as he makes another safety miss in the alley with a quick juke inside, outside and back inside; you hardly notice he changes direction that many times unless you slow the tape down.
McCaffrey’s feel for the game also translates to the passing game. One of Stanford’s best concepts last year is running a stick concept to the trips side with a running back option to the other. It is extremely difficult to defend the stick concept without committing an extra defender to the trips side. This leaves McCaffrey in a one-on-one situation with a linebacker on the other side, which is usually a huge mismatch.
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Chris Brown talks more about the option route here. Basically, McCaffrey is reading the leverage of the defender and basing his route on it. McCaffrey made a living feasting on linebackers as a receiver using this concept and it’s because he is able to make good reads and quickly translate his reads into action. Not only can he find space as a runner, but he knows how to find space as a receiver and that is going to make some NFL QB a very lucky man one day.
“AND he can PASS!”
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His ability to throw doesn’t upgrade him as a prospect, but it just shows how naturally the game of football comes to him. On this play, Austin Hooper does a great job of faking an arc block before running a corner route. The man that is supposed to cover him ignores him after he sees Hooper pretend to block and get his eyes on McCaffrey running a toss. McCaffrey displays a nice throwing motion and places the ball with touch perfectly over the defender’s head and Hooper does the rest to finish for the touchdown.
Christian’s father was a pro-bowl wide receiver for the Denver Broncos and his mom, who’s dad was an Olympic track star, was a standout college soccer player. It’s like he was bred to play football and watching him play is further proof His athleticism is top-notch, but his feel for the game is so natural and instinctual. Every once in awhile, we get the privilege of watching a college player ascend into legendary status and I believe McCaffrey is on his way there.