clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Surprising Key to Christian McCaffrey's Success

Patience is a virtue for running backs....and everyone else too

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Patience isn't the sexiest attribute a running back can have. By definition, it's about waiting, and nobody has time for that these days. Now and throughout time, most have been fixated on a running back's explosiveness and sheer strength, flashy skills that give helpless defenders a chance to be on highlight reels.

Of course, Stanford's Christian McCaffrey can do all of that, but he couldn't without waiting a little bit. If McCaffrey had the choice between getting three candy bars a week from now and getting one today, he'd jump at three next week, and then give them to someone else.

As I soaked in the Rose Bowl from the press box during McCaffrey's single-handed wing clipping of the Iowa Hawkeyes, I couldn't help but notice how slow McCaffrey makes the game seem. Just when he's lulled the defense to sleep and let his blocks develop, he explodes. Again. And over again.

Let's look at one of those plays. Early in the game, before he had totally ravaged the Iowa defense, McCaffrey's patience turned a three-to-four yard scamper into a 22-yard gain.

On second and five just under three minutes into the game, David Shaw opted to go with a fairly standard read option. Kevin Hogan bluffed a fake handoff and handed it off to his trusty running back.

Once he took the ball and looked up, McCaffrey was faced with a decision: wait and continue with the play-call and run outside the tackle, or go through a hole and get a short gain. With a linebacker waiting somewhat in that hole and a safety crashing, his odds weren't looking all that great for a big play.

An impatient back would have taken that short gain, and not allowed his blocks to materialize. Instead, McCaffrey opted to wait to find an opening and blow past defenders to the open field. He had faith in his linemen and wide receiver Devon Cajuste, who ended up saving the play for McCaffrey. First, he tried to draw the corner off the line to block him and missed, as shown below.

The Iowa cornerback in question was able to run free after, but Cajuste's track speed saved the play for McCaffrey. As you can see below, Cajuste ended up sprinting back to make the key block that allowed McCaffrey to explode delicately into open space (his specialty).

If McCaffrey hadn't waited and had faith in his teammates to properly execute the play, he would have been like most running backs, adjusting on the fly to slip through the safer, lower reward hole.

But Christian McCaffrey's patience is why he isn't like most running backs. It's a skill that translates to every facet of his game — kick returns, receiving, and more — and one that has turned him into the transcendent player that he is. Without it, he wouldn't be doing this to innocent safeties like Jordan Lomax (#27).

Of course, ESPN's Jesse Palmer stole my thunder on the television broadcast, doing color alongside the great Brent Musburger.

"On this play, Brent, you get to see the patience of Christian McCaffrey," Palmer said. "This is where I think he's improved the most as a runner from a year ago, allowing blocks to set themselves up, between the tackles and outside."

McCaffrey will need to continue to be patient this season if he wants to replicate his Heisman-winning runner-up campaign, especially with a retooled offensive line that needs to replace three starters and quickly find chemistry.

But as always, never doubt McCaffrey's ability to wait and let things come together.

(Screen grabs: