CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Christian McCaffrey, with a towel wrapped around his waist and disappointment wrapped around his face, sat in front of his locker at Lambeau Field in stunned silence on Sunday.
That inch felt like a mile for a running back who leads the league with 153.9 yards from scrimmage per game, 109.9 yards rushing per game and 11 rushing touchdowns. Not even an encouraging smile and pat on the back from Panthers coach Ron Rivera lifted McCaffrey’s spirits.
“I got the handoff and didn’t get in,” a despondent McCaffrey said a short time later.
In some ways, it represented the uphill battle McCaffrey faces in the race for the NFL Most Valuable Player award. It’s hard enough for running backs to be taken seriously in a competition that has been won by a quarterback for six straight years.
Sunday represented a chance for McCaffrey to upstage MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers in front of a national TV audience. Although McCaffrey had an impressive day -- 141 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown -- that second touchdown to complete the Panthers' comeback would have elevated his stock.
“What happens is people, now that we’re on the back end of the season, now you’re starting to talk seriously about the MVP race and mention who are the top four, who are the top five,” Hall of Fame running back and 2006 NFL MVP LaDainian Tomlinson told ESPN.com. “Christian and Aaron are both in the top five without question.
“So the spotlight is on both of them. It’s kind of like who performs the best this game will pass the other, and the one that doesn’t perform as well moves down.”
McCaffrey performed well enough to keep pace with the Green Bay quarterback, who along with Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson has the third-best MVP odds (+800), according to Caesars in Las Vegas.
But McCaffrey slipped in the overall race, going from tied for second to third behind Wilson (+160) and Jackson (+275).
“It’s pretty tough [for a running back] because people typically think of the MVP as a quarterback, honestly,” said Tomlinson, now an analyst for the NFL Network. “In order for a skill player or any player besides a quarterback to win that award, you have to have a record-breaking season.”
Former Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson won the NFL rushing title in 2009 with 2,006 yards. He broke Marshall Faulk’s 1990 record of total yards from scrimmage (2,429) with 2,509.
Not only did he not win the MVP award -- then-Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning won for the second straight year and fourth time since 2003 -- but Johnson didn’t even crack the top four in voting.
McCaffrey is on pace for 2,462 yards from scrimmage, so with a few huge games, he could break Johnson’s record. He already has 14 total touchdowns -- 11 rushing and three receiving -- which puts him two shy of what Johnson had in 2009.
He has seven games left.
“He’s got a thousand touchdowns, and he’s up there towards the top of the rushing leaders,” Panthers Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen said when making McCaffrey’s MVP case. “His impact in the receiving game ... his production is pretty rare in today’s version of the NFL.”
Still, recent history says McCaffrey doesn’t stand much of a chance to beat the quarterbacks in this race. Adrian Peterson, the most recent back to win the MVP, needed a Herculean effort in 2012 to edge Manning for the award.
Peterson rushed for a league-leading 2,097 yards, nine shy of Eric Dickerson’s single-season record.
Records do matter. In 2006, Tomlinson won the MVP after rushing for an NFL single-season-record 28 touchdowns. He had 31 combined touchdowns to go with 1,815 yards rushing and 508 yards receiving.
“You don’t get talked about early,” Tomlinson said of running backs pursing records. “It’s not until later in the season where people say, ‘Wait a minute. This player is putting up record-breaking numbers. We need to pay attention.'
“That’s what we’re seeing now with Christian McCaffrey. If he can continue this pace, he’s going to gain steam in the MVP race.”
Tomlinson understands the importance of breaking records for a running back to be in the MVP conversation. He also understands the importance of winning.
The Chargers went 14-2 in 2006, when he won the award. They went 4-12 in 2003, when he thought he also should have won. He wasn’t in the conversation then.
Despite rushing for 1,645 yards and 13 touchdowns and catching 100 passes for 725 yards and four touchdowns to lead the league in total yards from scrimmage with 2,370, Tomlinson didn’t get a vote for the 2003 award shared by Manning and Tennessee quarterback Steve McNair on 12-4 teams.
“People overlooked my 100 catches,” Tomlinson said. “I don’t even make the Pro Bowl. People really don’t respect the running back, I feel, that comes out of the backfield and does the things Christian McCaffrey can do.”
Tomlinson agreed that McCaffrey’s case will be helped considerably if the Panthers (5-4) go on a winning streak and make the playoffs. The quarterbacks vying for the award all play for teams that are 6-3 or better.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, all 64 previous MVPs played for winning teams, and all but two made the playoffs. The two that didn’t were O.J. Simpson in 1973, when he became the first player to rush for more than 2,000 yards, and Johnny Unitas in 1967, when the Colts went 11-1-2 and missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker.
If the Panthers don’t make the playoffs, Tomlinson is afraid that McCaffrey’s do-it-all effort will be a footnote to the season.
McCaffrey vs. Cook
Minnesota running back Dalvin Cook also could get into the MVP conversation. He leads the NFL in total yards from scrimmage with 1,415 and rushing with 991, slightly ahead of McCaffrey (1,385 and 989), who has played one fewer game.
That the Vikings are 7-3 might help Cook’s case, even though McCaffrey’s overall résumé is better. Cook is on pace for 2,264 yards, roughly 200 fewer than McCaffrey.
Here are a few other things that separate McCaffrey from Cook and other backs:
• He has accounted for 44% of Carolina’s yards from scrimmage. According to ESPN Stats & Information, no other player is above 37% (Cook). At McCaffrey's current rate, that would be the highest percentage by any player since Maurice Jones-Drew (47.7%) for the 2011 Jaguars.
• McCaffrey has accounted for 58.3% of Carolina’s offensive touchdowns, which ranks first in the league. Cook, at 32% of Minnesota’s, ranks 11th. According to Elias, McCaffrey’s pace would be the highest percentage over a full season by any player since the 1970 merger. Emmitt Smith accounted for 57.7% of Dallas’ touchdowns in 1996.
• McCaffrey has two rushing touchdowns of 50-plus yards this season. Nobody else has more than one. He has scored at least one touchdown in eight straight games.
• McCaffrey has played 93.43% of the offensive snaps. Cook is at 70.36%.
“People don’t really respect the things he does coming out of the backfield,” Tomlinson said of McCaffrey. “I hear people all the time talk about the greatest running backs. Yeah, they were great runners. But to me, the greatest running backs are the ones that can do everything, that don’t have to come off the field.
“That’s why Christian McCaffrey, to me, is right at the top of the list of running backs that are the best in the National Football League.”
The fans at Bank of America Stadium showed their appreciation two weeks ago in a win against Tennessee, chanting “MVP! MVP!” after McCaffrey’s 58-yard touchdown run.
“I was chanting with them,” Carolina safety Tre Boston said. “It’s amazing. This guy is something we’ve never seen before.”
If Boston had to plead McCaffrey's case over that of all the quarterbacks in the MVP race?
“He’s a game-changer, and he’s not playing quarterback,” Boston said. “He doesn’t get the ball in his hands every single play. He’s special. He’s very, very special.”
McCaffrey is a huge reason the Panthers have won five of seven games with Kyle Allen at quarterback after Cam Newton was shut down with a foot injury following an 0-2 start.
“The man is the heart and soul of our offense, heart and soul of our team,” Allen said.
McCaffrey's MVP case could have gained even more steam had he gotten another yard on two plays -- the one in Green Bay and another in Week 2. On the final play in a loss to Tampa Bay, on fourth-and-1 from the Buccaneers' 3, McCaffrey took a direct snap in the Wildcat formation and was stopped inches from a first down in a 20-14 setback. Wins in those two games would have the Panthers at 7-2.
“It’s also about what the other guys are doing, meaning the quarterbacks,” Tomlinson said. “I really believe the guys he has to worry about is Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson.
“At the same time, if Christian breaks the total yards from scrimmage record and has 25, 26 touchdowns, man, he has to truly be considered for the MVP. And maybe he should be the front-runner.”