Panthers' Christian McCaffrey on record-setting pace ... as a receiver

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Christian McCaffrey smiled when asked about the lone target -- the one he didn't catch -- among his 15 in Sunday's 31-24 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.

That's because the Carolina Panthers running back just happened to be in the area when quarterback Cam Newton desperately threw the ball out of bounds so high that even former NBA center Manute Bol (7-foot-7) wouldn't have gotten a hand on it.

"That should be a plus for the team," said the 5-foot-11 McCaffrey, still smiling.

McCaffrey definitely is a plus for the Panthers (1-1). Lost in the setback at Mercedes-Benz Stadium were his 14 catches that tied Steve Smith's single-game record for the most in Carolina history and the single-game total for a running back in the past 37 seasons.

The No. 8 overall pick of the 2017 draft put on a show with his route running, whether he lined up in the backfield, in the slot or at wideout. With 20 catches in two games, he has put himself on pace to obliterate the NFL's single-season record for receptions by a running back. Matt Forte had 102 for the Chicago Bears in 2014.

Though it isn't realistic to think McCaffrey will average 10 catches a game, he is on pace for 160 total.

"Oh, he's a nightmare," Carolina strong safety Mike Adams said. "A guy that can run the routes, run the ball and catch, you're just not used to that."

McCaffrey reminds Adams, 37, of another special player he faced early in his career.

"When I look at him coming out of the backfield I think of LaDainian Tomlinson," Adams said of the 2017 Pro Football Hall of Fame selection. "He just creates so many mismatches."

This isn't the first time McCaffrey has been compared to Tomlinson, who finished his NFL career with 624 catches -- third behind Larry Centers (827) and Marshall Faulk (767) on the NFL's all-time list for backs.

That he's being utilized as a receiver out of the backfield the way Tomlinson was with the Chargers shouldn't surprise, either. Panthers offensive coordinator Norv Turner was Tomlinson's offensive coordinator in 2001 and later became his head coach.

But Tomlinson never got off to a receiving start this fast.

McCaffrey's 20 receptions are the second most by a running back through the first two weeks of a season since the 1970 merger, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Faulk had 21 in 2002.

And there's no reason to think it can't continue.

McCaffrey has 40.8 percent of his team's receptions, which is the highest rate by a running back through the first two games since 2001 when the league began keeping these stats. The previous high was 38.1 percent by Domanick Williams for the 2004 Texans.

He also has 33.8 percent of Carolina's targets, the highest rate by a back through the first two games since at least 2001. The previous high for that span was 32 percent for Faulk in 2002, when he finished with 100 catches.

"I'm always trying to be the most complete back I can be," McCaffrey said. "A lot of times when you have teams that play so off, a lot of times they forget about the back."

'Pete Carroll specials'

McCaffrey arrived at the stadium on Monday wearing a pair of Nike Air Monarchs like the so-dubbed "Dad" shoes Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll is known for wearing.

The Panthers' second-year player began wearing them as a joke with Carolina cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, but because they were so comfortable they have become a part of a fashion statement the way custom-made hats are a part of Newton's cache.

"I'd like to think I kind of started the Pete Carroll style," McCaffrey said with a laugh.

McCaffrey comes from solid dad stock. His father is former Denver wide receiver Ed McCaffrey, now a high school football coach who has another NFL player in free-agent wide receiver Max McCaffrey and two other sons playing quarterback on the high school and collegiate levels.

But Ed never had more than 10 catches in a game, doing it twice in 2000. Four times he had fewer than 20 catches in a season during his 13 in the league.

Christian had 10 catches during his rookie season against Philadelphia last season en route to a team-high 80. Only once, with 101 receptions in 2000, did his dad top 80.

So, the fact that McCaffrey runs the route tree better than many wide receivers should come as no surprise. Mike Bloomgren, his offensive coordinator at Stanford, tried to tell everybody that before the 2015 Heisman runner-up played his first NFL down.

"As we ran him on routes out of the backfield and saw the success he had, we said, 'This is a generational player. We've got to find more ways to get him the ball,'" Bloomgren, now the head coach at Rice, told ESPN.com last year. "Every time we gave him a route ... the first time he'd go out and run it we'd go like, 'Yep, pretty good.'"

McCaffrey finished with 99 catches for 1,206 yards and 10 touchdown in three seasons at Stanford, to go along with 3,922 yards rushing.

The Panthers, who hired Stanford running back Lance Taylor to coach receivers last year, spent much of their pre-draft time evaluating McCaffrey on his abilities as a receiver.

"It was high," coach Ron Rivera said of the team's grade on McCaffrey as a receiver. "It was very high. There were some teams that talked about him playing the slot position as well.

"The biggest thing was ... Lance was able to say this guy as a receiver coming out of the backfield is tremendous."

Life-saver reunion

Dan Smoker Sr., 72, never heard of McCaffrey in March when he almost died after falling 20 feet during a hike in Castle Rock, Colorado. He still hasn't met the 22-year-old who helped save his life that day.

But he will this weekend.

Smoker, who doesn't remember anything that happened for seven days after the fall, and his family from Cincinnati will be McCaffrey's special guests for Sunday's 1 p.m. ET game against the Bengals (2-0).

"He's walking now," said McCaffrey, who called 911 that day when he was in the right place at the right time to help. "He's doing great. We were lucky enough to be there to help out. It should be fun."

It should be fun watching how the rest of McCaffrey's season unfolds. His 20 catches rank first among running backs this season and second overall to New Orleans wide receiver Michael Thomas, who has 28 on 30 targets.

McCaffrey has five more catches than Atlanta's Julio Jones and the Giants' Odell Beckham Jr., considered two of the best receivers in the NFL.

"Christian can affect the game in so many ways, not just when he aligns behind QB. People must put out an APB on No. 22 or he will continue to defy the norms of football," Bloomgren said.

McCaffrey's production also is a good indication of how much Newton has progressed under Turner's system based on more high-percentage passes.

"When you see him catching the checkdowns, that's telling you the quarterback is getting through his progressions and making good decisions because of the positive yards that were gained," Rivera said. "That's how we want to use him."

The Panthers also want to continue to use McCaffrey as a runner between the tackles. The goal is to get him 25 to 30 touches a game, and he came close with 22 against Atlanta.

Though he has only 18 rushes for 87 yards in two games, his yards per carry are solid at 4.83. McCaffrey believes the more short passes he catches out the backfield, the more it will benefit everyone offensively.

"As we saw [Sunday], those dump-down passes were really working," he said. "We were getting six, seven yards. When you get that every time, those are first downs and moving the chains. Eventually, teams will start having to play that and that's when things will start opening up."

Adams is glad he doesn't have to face McCaffrey because of the mismatches he creates.

"If he just lined up in the slot, we can designate somebody on you," he said. "You can't really do that with a back. That's what makes him so special."

That McCaffrey understands the receiver position better than most backs makes him downright dangerous.

"He's a different breed," Adams said.