MIAMI – The Carolina Panthers cleaned house after a middling season that saw franchise quarterback Cam Newton lost to a lisfranc injury, long time head coach Ron Rivera let go in early December, Luke Kuechly’s decision to retire, Greg Olsen’s parting ways with the team, and more questions than answers heading into 2020. New owner David Tepper has his fingerprints all over the city of Charlotte, including continued hemming and hawing with the city over the stadium (a head-scratching tax assessment of the property cut its value in half), along with the announcement of an MLS team that will have its headquarters in the long dormant former Eastland Mall site.
Much like the city itself, an old identity is being plastered over as quickly as possible with what’s new. Matt Rhule brings college pedigree and the ability to build programs efficiently, as he did at Temple and Baylor. New offensive coordinator Joe Brady brings youthful energy and a freshly minted College Football Playoff championship ring. All that’s missing to truly parallel Charlotte’s trajectory are some Sperrys and an IPA. But one thing that’s not changing is the team’s reliance on Christian McCaffrey. The running back, who’s more Mega Man than Mario, doesn’t add skills in short bursts, losing them when he’s knocked down. Instead, over his time in the league, the fourth-year product from Stanford programs them to memory, bringing a terrifying game to defenses that is sure to be enticing to the new coaching staff..
To his credit, McCaffrey appears singularly focused. He’s a football guy raised in a football family, and in an era when many athletes are eager to prove why they’re more than that off the field, he’s devoted to proving why he is one, as he can’t really imagine being anything else right now.
UPROXX got the chance to catch up with McCaffrey during Super Bowl week on behalf of USAA, as he talked through those changes, the continued growth of receiver D.J. Moore, how he treats his body like an F1 car, and what it meant to bring a couple veterans to the Big Game.
Martin Rickman: A lot of changes obviously with the team heading into next season, especially in the coaching staff. I’ve seen your comments about how excited you are. But what is it about this influx of coaching talent? It’s different because you had an established system previously, but now you’ve got these young voices, new voices, and Matt [Rhule] who obviously, you know what he did in college level, along with Joe [Brady] too. You’ve got these guys who maybe are bringing in just a different style for you.
Christian McCaffrey: It’s cool because I think we have the right guys. We got a great group of young guys with a great mix of veteran leadership who are hungry to win. And I think at the end of the day, the players are the ones that play. And we have the coaches who can put us in the best scenario and great leaders, guys who can get the team going at all times and get them to practice hard. And do the little things at a high level, big things will happen and I think we do have the right team for that, so we’re going to work really hard for them.
One of those young guys is D.J. [Moore]. He had that big jump this season. A lot of the things that he needed to work on, he worked on. What have you seen out of him and how can you guys compliment each other going forward to really even take this thing into the next level?
Yeah, he’s such a dynamic receiver. He can do so much with the ball in his hands. I think after the catch, he’s one of the most exciting guys that I’ve seen, at least. He’s fast, he’s strong, he’s physical, he’s got good hands, so the sky’s the limit for him. I think it’ll be really cool to see him take a hard leadership position because we’ll need him there. Obviously with everybody gone it’s guys like him that we’re going to need to step up and really help lead this team.
From a leadership perspective, you guys got so much from Luke [Kuechly] for so long. How do you personally take on more of that role and what did you learn from him to kind of carry the team forward, especially as you continue to really grab some more of that offensive attention and really carry that team?
You can never replace a guy like Luke but you can do your best to try to emulate everything he did, from a leadership perspective, from a film study perspective, the way he worked in practice and on the field. So, from my standpoint as a leader on the team, I think it’s just honoring him and doing just that, holding the guys to a high standard. And it takes a village, there’s never one leader on the team and we want a bunch of leaders. We want guys all over, so whether you’re a rookie or not, to be a leader.
And I think when you have a couple of seasons that don’t go your way, I think it’s got to start from scratch. There are no more “veterans.” We need everybody in and it doesn’t matter where you’re from, how old you are, what year it is, we need all guys on board at an even level to lead.
Growing up, you see your dad in the locker room. You see him working as hard as he did. Now that you’ve had a few years under your belt, what’s the biggest thing you’ve learned or appreciated about the sacrifices, the work that he put in, as you were growing up, now that you have this experience?
The biggest thing I’ve learned is finding your formula and taking care of your body and finding out what’s right for you. An issue I had early on was training way too much. Finding the balance between treatment and rest and going hard and training. When you find it, it’s really cool because you’re always feeling good. It’s something you learn through experiences. Something that I’ve leaned on my dad, obviously playing 13 years in the league is something that is not easy and not a lot of people do that. Especially back then in a day and age where they didn’t take care of their players as well as the league does now. So it’s fun to always ask him questions and I still ask him questions.
You mentioned repairing your body and making sure you take that time. What are some of the things that you do to clear your head and make sure that you’re always in a good place? Because we’re in this era now where it’s okay to take a little bit of time to do that. It’s okay to be yourself. You’re not just a football player, you’re a person too.
Well I’ve learned to love the process of training. Part of that is resting. And you do need mental escapes. But for me, I think when you really love what you do and I love the game of football so much. It becomes fun. I enjoy it. It’s funny when people ask what I do outside of football, and I really don’t do much. I get ready for the next football game. And so my job is to essentially workout and take care of my body and be healthy. And that’s a hell of a job.
— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) January 30, 2020
It’s a lot of work.
It is a lot of work, but it’s fun. I get to try to feel the best I can all the time. And a lot goes into it, especially end of the season when you’re getting hit and you got little bumps and bruises here and there. But the art of creating a machine week in and week out, I like the analogy of a Formula One car. Treat your body like a Formula One car. A car is always in the shop. It’s always getting looked at. It’s always, the screw’s loose, you fix it now and there are certain ways to do it. You’ve got to make sure you have the right fuel. You got to make sure you have the right mechanics. That’s kind of how I look at it. And when you look at it that way it become fun. It becomes a constant project to get you to 100 percent.
And we’ve never had this much data available to us. All this energy that we can put into finding specific foods that do or do not work with you and lots of groups that you can isolate. Everything that we have from a recovery standpoint that didn’t exist when your dad was playing.
Right. Yeah, I mean it’s moving so fast and everybody’s getting on board. Like I said before, it’s just fun being a part of that and being a part of this era where it is so progressive.
Charlotte itself, you’ve seen even in the short time you’ve been there, how much development, how much building. There’s an MLS team coming. It seems like it’s changing all the time, every day. What’s exciting about Charlotte specifically for you in the time that you’ve been there?
Yeah, I look at Charlotte as home now. For my first couple of years in the league, I’d always go back home to Colorado and I missed home. And now, I love it so much and that’s where I am. I bought a place there. It’s somewhere that I can home.
And I think it’s really exciting to see, just even since I’ve been a rookie, how much it’s grown. And like you said, there’s buildings all over the place that I hadn’t seen before. People are moving here quick, especially a lot of young people, but it’s such a good city to be into because of the people. Every time you go anywhere, everyone’s so nice and respectful. You’ve got the city. 10 minutes outside the city, you’re in the suburbs all over the place. You’ve got the lake, you’ve got the mountains. I love to hunt and fish so being able to do that it’s a lot of fun too. And it’s just a really exciting time to be in Charlotte.
Semper Fi SgtMaj Luis Leiva at Camp Lejeune! Thank you for nearly 30 years of service to our country and being part of the best defensive team I've ever seen. Proud to present 2 tix to #SBLIV on behalf of @USAA & @MCA_Marines. #SaluteToService pic.twitter.com/so8jqkAb0R
— Christian McCaffrey (@CMC_22) January 22, 2020
Lastly, what you’ve done with USAA, what do you get out of it personally – not just being in the Super Bowl, which is an important week and you’ve learned so much being down here – but to do so with a mission and with something that is actually impacting someone else’s life.
Yeah. So, I think as soon as they mentioned philanthropy and being able to give back in the league, the military was the first thing that I wanted to do. I have such a respect for our active duty military members. Anytime I can give back, I do so in that way. This is something that’s fun because it’s revolved around football. Me and USAA gave tickets to Sergeant Major Leiva and his brother Jorge. He’s actually the first active duty military member that we’ve given tickets to, so it’s really fun. And it’s fun too, just, my perspective being able to pick their brains and being able to hear stories and learn from them because at the end of day, those are my heroes. So it’s a lot of fun being able to talk with those guys and hang out and enjoy football. It’s cool hearing when they look at football as as an escape. It makes you want to play a little harder knowing that your heroes who are fighting for their lives and for our lives love to watch you play.