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Unanswerable questions part II: Christian McCaffrey

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Perhaps the most devastating weapon in a college offense is the hybrid skill player who can move around and ensure that the defense is always wrong. Christian McCaffrey is such a player and he's making Stanford pretty hard to stop.

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Once upon a time in this space we talked about an exciting young player for Oklahoma State named Tyreek Hill and the "unanswerable question" that teams with hybrid RBs can ask of defenses. As it turned out, Hill was a limited runner, wasn't heavily utilized in the passing game, and missed his senior year after getting arrested. True hybrid players are just hard to find.

Today's up-tempo focused game is making the game more and more about match-ups, which teams can get favorable match-ups for their best players and then exploit them. Hybrid skill players make this task much easier as they can always lean on the particular skill where they are up against a favorable match-up. Dual-threat QBs and true TEs are the most typical hybrids that you find but the true hybrid RB is an equally great treasure.

Yet finding RBs who are real threats both as runners and receivers is still a difficult task for many college teams.

Well Stanford found such a player in Christian McCaffrey in 2015 who proved to be the real deal and the results were astounding.

With an offense built around McCaffrey's numerous talents, Stanford finished the year ranked 5th in offensive S&P with an impressive overall profile:

Off S&P Rushing S&P Passing S&P Standard downs Passing downs Success rate IsoPPP+
5th 21st 7th 16th 17th 7th 20th

Their success rate was particularly noteworthy, as was the Cardinal's overall competence and strength as an offensive unit. McCaffrey's statistical contribution looked like this:

Rushes-yards YPC TDs Catches-yards YPC TDs Punt returns-yards TDs Kick returns-yards TDs
337-2019 6.0 8 45-645 14.3 5 15-130 1 37-1070 1

That's 3864 total yards for the Cardinal, 2664 of it from their offense at a rate of 6.9 yards per touch for a guy that usually gets the ball either five yards behind the line of scrimmage or five yards beyond it. If Heisman voters weren't easily enamored with rushing statistics from SEC-country and ignorant of the schematic context in which they occurred, McCaffrey would have been rightfully awarded as the best player in college football.

Of course he'll be back in 2016 for his junior season and a clear frontrunner for the award, but around here we like to explain how things are happening rather than simply noting what is happening. Here's why McCaffrey is the most devastating weapon in college football and how he has a multiplier effect on the entire Stanford offense.

The two-part question

An elite RB like Derrick Henry forces a defense to answer the question of how they're going to defend a carry on a given snap without exposing themselves to getting shredded by an RPO or play-action pass. When Christian McCaffrey is on the field, defenses have to answer two questions on every snap.

Question One: How are we going to stop a potential McCaffrey run without getting gashed by the passing game?

It's pretty hard to stop McCaffrey just on the standard running plays that comprise Stanford's "power-coast" offense. The Cardinal always have fullbacks, tight ends, and OL that excel in run blocking and often draw the attention of NFL scouts.

McCaffrey was equally effective in a variety of different Stanford schemes last year, both in their outside zone schemes as well as their gap plays like power or this interesting zone/man combo they rolled out against Notre Dame:

Stanford Mc5 RPO

There's a great deal of cleverness going on here for Stanford. They have a zone/man combo scheme going with the guards executing down blocks (which guards generally love), the tackles executing reach blocks (where they tend to excel), and the center pulling around the guard into the hole to pick off the weakside linebacker.

Notre Dame did a good job of defending McCaffrey's runs but doing so generally required that they get extra numbers to the point of attack to prevent him from finding any creases to exploit. In this instance, Stanford is poised to punish the linebackers for flowing hard to stop McCaffrey behind the lead block with double slants on the back side.

The Irish dropped a safety to try and cover the TE but he can't get down and take away a quick in-breaking route from that flex TE without the linebacker there to help him.

This is the direction the game is now going and since these types of packaged concepts make it easy to leverage a good run game and a dangerous possession receiver at the same time on standard downs.

If you're Notre Dame how do you handle that play differently? Is there a better way to ensure you get numbers at the point of attack to keep McCaffrey from getting loose without giving up a short pass? It gets difficult very quickly unless you have star players all across your defensive backfield or else a totally dominant DL.

Then there's also the Stanford Wildcat package, in which McCaffrey lines up in formations similar to what Baylor used to plow over North Carolina and runs single-wing style football. In those instances you don't have to worry so much about the pass as finding ways to get as many players into the box as possible.

Question Two: How are we going to cover a potential McCaffrey route without leaving another receiver open?

For my money this is where things got really interesting for Stanford last year, opposing teams couldn't just be mindful of how they were going to line up in order to get numbers in the box to stop McCaffrey but they also needed to be mindful of who would end up in coverage on McCaffrey if he ran a route.

With a full month to prepare for Stanford in the Rose Bowl, Iowa was very mindful of this dilemma and their plan off the bat was to drop a backside safety (much like Notre Dame above) to allow the linebackers to flow to the run or to potentially cover McCaffrey on a route.

Here was the set-up:

Stanford stick/Mc5 option

Chris Brown of Smart Football broke down how McCaffrey is devastating running these kinds of routes so consider the position that Iowa is in on defense. They're in one of the preferred coverage schemes of modern football, a variety of quarters that blends conservatism with aggression. They have a the strong safety as an extra man to play backside contain while the linebackers flow hard to the ball and he's also in position to cover the RB in coverage.

Once again a consequence is that Stanford has a favorable match-up here for their TE running the stick route against the middle linebacker but in terms of defensing a McCaffrey run or pass, the ducks are all lined up in a row for the Hawkeyes. Then this happened...

The Hawkeyes have a DB lined up on McCaffrey and the result is an 80 yard touchdown reception. What do you even do from here? As you would probably guess, the answer was "get smashed" and the Cardinal went on to enjoy a 45-16 victory that was basically never in doubt from the first play of the game.

Those types of trips formations with McCaffrey and a TE sharing the field with Hogan and three receivers were very good to the Cardinal for the reasons demonstrated on this play. Because of McCaffrey's abilities in running routes out of the backfield it becomes next to impossible to find ways to defend a run and a pass.

Most coverages aren't designed to double the RB but that's exactly what teams had to do at times and the inevitable consequence is that a TE or WR is left open. There are very few TEs and WRs in the world that can't hurt you pretty badly if you don't cover them.

The best solution to the McCaffrey problem would be having a linebacker that could cover McCaffrey or the TE as well as a down safety that could do the same so that the defense could enjoy sound match-ups to either side of the formation against the pass and still get numbers in the box to stop the run.

If Stanford were to add an Iso receiver that could command a double team to this equation? Teams would simply be out of answers. As it happens, the Cardinal return all three WRs, McCaffrey, 3/5 of the OL (losing the left side), and will have to fill in new players at QB and TE.

It's easy to note that the players Stanford lost were all very good, but when the whole system revolves around McCaffrey's ability to play a hybrid role and threaten the softest parts of a defense on every snap on both standard downs and passing downs, it's hard to be too worried about it on behalf of their team. Most TEs should be able to find success playing off McCaffrey and very few QBs can't execute a quick throw to the RB.

There are very few skill players that can have the kind of impact on a football game that a truly dominant hybrid like McCaffrey can and it's not hard to see how Stanford could build another top 10 attack with him returning to anchor the system in what for him will amount to a contract year.