Christian McCaffrey's unlikely MVP bid hinges on Panthers' success

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Spears calls McCaffrey the MVP: Panthers can't thrive without him (1:14)

Marcus Spears makes a case for why Christian McCaffrey deserves to be the MVP front-runner at this point of the season. (1:14)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Almost everywhere Christian McCaffrey went last week in London, the words “NFL MVP candidate" were part of his introduction.

The running back was easily the most recognizable member of the Carolina Panthers, especially with quarterback Cam Newton at home rehabbing a left foot injury. The attention was deserved, given the numbers McCaffrey has put up so far this season.

But is McCaffrey the favorite to win the award, which has gone to only six running backs in the past 25 years and none since Adrian Peterson took home the prize in 2012 with the Minnesota Vikings?

“No," Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams said while in London as a league ambassador for the Panthers. “If it was just at running back, yes. But Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, when you start battling quarterbacks, that’s when it gets interesting. He’s in the conversation, but he’s not the conversation because of those three guys."

Because the NFL has become a passing league and running backs in many cases have become interchangeable, quarterbacks have won MVP the past six years and 11 of the past 12.

The latest odds out of Caesars in Las Vegas suggest that won’t change. McCaffrey is fourth on the MVP list behind Seattle’s Russell Wilson, Kansas City’s Mahomes and Houston’s Deshaun Watson. New England’s Brady is fifth.

No running back besides McCaffrey is in the top 10.

“The only way he wins the NFL MVP is the Panthers have to keep winning," Williams said. “You can’t be 8-8 or 7-9 or 10-6."

The Panthers have won four straight since an 0-2 start. McCaffrey is a big reason for that.

The eighth pick of the 2017 draft is on pace for 2,461 yards from scrimmage, which would be the second-most in NFL history behind the 2,509 yards Chris Johnson gained for Tennessee in 2009.

Johnson didn’t win MVP that season, and the Titans finished 8-8. Quarterback Peyton Manning won the award for the 14-2 Indianapolis Colts, throwing for 4,500 yards and 33 touchdowns.

When Peterson won the award in 2012 -- he missed Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record by 9 yards -- he got 61% of the votes from the panel of 50 media members, beating Manning.

When Newton won the award in 2015, he got 96% of the votes (48 of 50). Mahomes won 82% last year (41 of 50), with the other nine going to New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees.

Only three running backs since Peterson won have received a vote.

“I always say he’s not a running back,” Panthers Pro Bowl defensive lineman Gerald McCoy said. “He’s a weapon.”

That McCaffrey makes plays as a runner and as a receiver helps his case. He has an NFL-leading 618 yards rushing and seven rushing touchdowns, equaling the career-high seven he had last season. He also has 35 catches (tied for 11th in the league) for 305 yards and two touchdowns.

McCaffrey has been on the field for 96% of the Panthers' snaps, the highest percentage among NFL running backs, which helps because he gets more touches.

His NFL-high 923 yards from scrimmage have him being compared to NFL legend Jim Brown. Those comparisons began after Week 5, when McCaffrey had 866 total yards, the second-most through five games in NFL history behind the 988 Brown had in 1963.

Brown, by the way, didn’t win MVP in 1963, despite rushing for 1,863 yards and 12 touchdowns to go with 24 catches for 268 yards and three touchdowns. Giants quarterback Y.A. Tittle won with an 11-2 record and 36 touchdown passes.

“Obviously, the league is very skewed toward quarterbacks," Carolina tight end Greg Olsen said. “This league is very quarterback-driven, so everybody understands those dynamics. But Christian’s impact on our team, his impact on what he’s done over the first six weeks of the season, to anybody who is watching, it’s pretty evident the impact he’s had.

“For him, being in that discussion is entirely justified."

That didn’t change after McCaffrey had what appeared to be a setback in his MVP chase in London. He totaled only 57 yards in Sunday’s 37-26 victory over Tampa Bay.

“He scored twice today?" McCoy said after McCaffrey used his brute strength to score on a 1-yard run and his amazing athletic ability to juke, spin and stiff-arm past three defenders en route to a 25-yard touchdown catch. “What? He scored twice? He’s still in my eyes one of the top three candidates for MVP.

“Don’t look at the yards. He gave us 14 points. That’s even better."

Even more amazing is that he did so with a backup quarterback in Kyle Allen and behind an offensive line that lost Pro Bowl right guard Trai Turner after the third game and is down to its third left tackle in Dennis Daley.

On the plus side, having Norv Turner as the offensive coordinator doesn’t hurt. Turner was with Emmitt Smith at Dallas in 1993, when the future Hall of Famer won MVP. He also leaned heavily on 2006 MVP LaDainian Tomlinson after taking over the San Diego Chargers in 2007.

Winning, as Williams said, is key. Every NFL MVP has played for a winning team, and all but two made the playoffs, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The two who missed the playoffs were running back O.J. Simpson in 1973, when he became the first back to top 2,000 yards rushing, and quarterback Johnny Unitas in 1967, when the Colts went 11-1-2 and missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker.

When Dickerson set the single-season rushing record in 1984, he finished runner-up to Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino.

Even if McCaffrey were to set the record for yards from scrimmage in a season, he could be fighting an uphill battle against quarterbacks unless the Panthers continue their hot streak, as the 2015 team did with Newton en route to an NFL-best 15-1 record.

McCaffrey isn’t focused on records or being recognized in London or any other country. He’s focused on winning, regardless of his numbers.

“A win’s a win," he said Sunday. “It’s a team game. Not every game is going to be an all-star game."