Inside a Denver recording studio not far from his offseason home, Carolina Panthers All-Pro Christian McCaffrey, one of the most versatile gridders in a league full of elite hybrids, reveals the off-field obsession that could one day add a few new hyphenates to his job title: RB-pianist-songwriter-music producer.
As McCaffrey, 23, tickles the ivories, his pals Nick Shanholtz and Rob Abisi, better known as DJ duo Lost Kings, tackle the drums and bass guitar, respectively — while Levi Waddell, aka rapper Levi Todd, pens lyrics on the fly. What begins to emerge from this 90-minute recording session is a pop/hip-hop track that defies genre, much like the third-year pass-catching ball carrier who’s doing much of the quarterbacking here.
Eventually, the group gathers in the control room to assess the unfinished product. “I think it’s missing a layer,” McCaffrey says before sticking me on the cowbell because, as he says, he has “a fever, and the only prescription is … more cowbell!” When the laughter subsides, the versatile star adds a layer of his own via the harmonica, which he taught himself to play back at Stanford when he wasn’t busy trying to win the Heisman Trophy. I get the feeling we’ll be sitting here into the early morning hours laughing, fist-bumping and “adding layers” if I don’t play party pooper and pull McCaffrey aside for an interview.
ESPN: Why are we in a recording studio?
Christian McCaffrey: One of my big passions in the offseason, or just when I get time off in general, is playing music, and I’ve been fortunate to be around people who are a lot more talented than I am. I met Rob and Nick a long time ago, and every time I go to LA, I’ll hit them up and we’ll just jam in different genres. And Levi is one of my best buds from high school. First time we all jammed, it was a come-to-Jesus moment where we were like, “We should do something with this.”
What sparked your interest in performing?
My childhood neighbor played piano, and he told me we’d get all the girls if I learned how to play-and I was probably in eighth grade, going into high school, so I said, “Sign me up.” There was a talent show with a cash bonus, so we learned a little song together [Pachelbel’s “Canon in D”] and ended up winning it, took home one of those big checks, like in Happy Gilmore.
Who are your musical influences?
There’s a guy right now who’s probably my favorite: Tyler Childers, a country artist. I love his sound. I love Mac Miller. I’m a big Drake fan. I love Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Bob Marley. I probably have the most versatile playlist in the world, from country to rap to classic rock to classical.
What’s the most embarrassing thing you listen to?
I’m proud of everything I have in my library.
I’ll give you one if you give me one: I like Taylor Swift.
I love Taylor Swift. I’m not ashamed of that. Why are you embarrassed by that?
You’re right: I love Taylor Swift.
There you go.
Could we hear an album one day?
[Laughs] That’d be really cool. We’ll see where it goes. I’m still learning. I’ve always played by watching somebody’s fingers and listening, but these last two weeks I told myself that I was gonna commit to learning how to read actual sheet music and trying to, like, classically train myself. It’s funny, I’m back at “Ants Go Marching.”
Can you write lyrics or sing?
I’ve written lyrics, but it’s not for me. And the downfall of my music career might be singing. [Laughs] I kind of have a vision of how somebody should perform a certain song.
You do seem to know exactly how it all fits together, like a producer.
That’s a fair description. Being able to produce music and grow a song from nothing is a lot of fun. With technology nowadays, I have a keyboard where I can play any instrument and do it all myself on the computer. And the beauty of it is, every once in a while you make something you like. Ed Sheeran said songs are weird — they come and go and you never know when they’ll show up.
Cam Newton has said you have “swagger through the roof.” What in the world could zap your swagger, besides a microphone?
[Laughs] That’s an honor coming from the Drip God, as he calls himself. But to answer your question: spiders. I’m not a fan of spiders. Not at all. I could do without insects.
So, if a spider dropped on your lap right now?
I’d freak out. Yeah, that’d be no good.
If you could do a collab with any teammate, who’d you have on your album?
I’d have Greg Olsen on the mic. He’s an electric singer. Anytime there’s a song on, he’s the first one belting it. Pregame, he’ll be belting out Adele, and it’s the best thing ever.
This offseason, we discovered another thing you’re good at: being ripped. What’s it like to go viral for a photo of your muscles?
[Laughs] The internet’s a crazy place. When I came into the league, I was 20, so naturally I’m getting bigger, faster, stronger. But I’m only about a pound or two heavier than last year. I like playing at around 207, and that’s what I’m at right now. But I’m definitely stronger. This is one of the first times that I’ve been able to train for a full offseason because I came out of the season healthy. That makes a huge difference.
Coming into the league, some doubted that you could be an every-down back — in part, let’s be real, because of the color of your skin. How did that make you feel at the time?
I just kinda let that pass, know what I mean? I get it, there’s not a whole lot of white running backs out there. [Laughs] It’s just the way it is. But every single NFL player has doubters. I’ve always fought the criticism that I can’t run between the tackles, but I feel like I’ve kind of put that to rest. [McCaffrey ranked first last year in yards per carry between the tackles among backs with 150-plus attempts.]
Because of your versatility and the versatility you afford an offense, The Ringer declared: “Christian McCaffrey is the future of football.” Do you think that’s true for you and guys like you?
Yeah, I do. The league is shifting. It’s becoming a smaller league, way more speed-dominant. So you’re seeing more backs like me who can run between the tackles, pass-protect, catch and become matchup nightmares. You also have more receivers who are getting jet sweeps, doing different things with the ball in their hands. A lot of it stems from college offenses. There’s very few pro-style college offenses nowadays, so you see NFL coaches adapting to the players that are coming in. That’s why [Panthers offensive coordinator] Norv Turner has been huge for me. He’s a guy who’s been in the league so long, but you constantly see him adapting.
He’s also a guy who’s coached some of the greats at your position.
Yeah, I’ve seen more LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles clips than anybody out there, and I hear stories all the time about those guys — Adrian Peterson, LT, all the guys I watched growing up. Knowing that their coach believes in me is something I really appreciate.
Last year you ran, caught or threw for 14 touchdowns. Where’s one place on the field that I can’t pay you to line up at?
[Laughs] You could pay me to line up anywhere if the money’s good.
Where would you like to line up and haven’t yet?
Oh man, I’d love to play safety. I played it when I was a kid, back when I was watching guys like Brian Dawkins and John Lynch come down full speed and hit someone. Or rush end! I always got a ball in my hand, so being able to let loose would be really fun. But Coach [Ron] Rivera would probably shut that down quick.
You’re a fantasy superstar. Have fantasy owners been showing their appreciation?
Every time I’m in public, somebody’s like, “Yo, thank you so much for my fantasy points last year.” I’ve had multiple waiters and waitresses give me free meals for helping them win their league. Hopefully I do it again this year, otherwise the tabs might go up.
Last season was a forgettable one for the Panthers. Give your fans reason for hope. Why will this year be different?
This is a team that’s a few years removed from the Super Bowl with a lot of the same guys from that team. We got great leaders with Luke Kuechly, Cam, Greg Olsen, and we just added Gerald McCoy, Chris Hogan, guys who’ve won in this league and know what it takes. We have the talent. It’s just a matter of staying healthy, executing on Sundays.
How would you assess your own leadership skills right now?
I’ve had more of a vocal presence this year. We’ve got a young running back room — so I’m able to verbalize things that I see for them. Other than that, I’m just working as hard as I can, showing guys what it takes. I’m lucky to have come into a team with guys like Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Greg Olsen, who set the standard.
Your dad, Ed, won three Super Bowls, two here in Denver when you were a child. Do you have any memories of those wins?
My only memory is a picture on our wall from SI where I’m running on the field with confetti and a big ol’ blond ‘fro. I was [not quite] 2 and 3 when he won those. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen his rings. He keeps them locked up.
He’s afraid you’re gonna steal them?
[Laughs] No, he’s just a humble man. I want my own rings. One for every year that I play. That’s the goal.
What other goals have you set for yourself?
I got a lot of goals that I keep to myself, but one goal is definitely the 1K/1K club [1,000 yards rushing and receiving]. I almost did it last year and it was a bummer not getting it. Two guys have done it — Marshall Faulk and Roger Craig — and there’s a race to be the third. There’s a lot of backs in the league who can get there.
Yeah, in a time when backs are being devalued, there are a heck of a lot of good ones out there.
Especially in the NFC. I think Saquon [Barkley] is a great back. Todd Gurley. Zeke [Ezekiel Elliott]. David Johnson. Melvin Gordon. Phillip Lindsay, a hometown guy in Colorado. Alvin Kamara is a guy I’m watching constantly.
If you had to pick, which one do you want more: Football Hall of Fame or the rock ‘n’ roll one?
[Laughs] Both would be great. That might be a first. I’d never considered that one. There ya go, that’s another goal. Perfect.
49ers’ D.J. Jones going on injured reserve with ankle injury
Niners coach Kyle Shanahan on Friday said defensive tackle D.J. Jones will land on injured reserve Saturday with an ankle injury, ending his season.
Jones was already playing on an injured ankle and suffered a high sprain on his other ankle against the Saints, Shanahan said. Jones played through the injury but it was discovered to be more serious upon further testing.
“That was what was pretty impressive,” Shanahan said. “That’s why we were somewhat optimistic about it. He did it early in the game, too, maybe the first drive. But that’s why we were optimistic. But after they looked in there and stuff, it was too bad and it was going to be more likely eight weeks.”
While Jones doesn’t get the acclaim of the Niners’ other three starting defensive linemen, he has been an integral piece of the group, doing the dirty work by taking on double-teams and stuffing the run.
Jones started all 11 games in which he appeared this season, posting 23 tackles and two sacks. He previously returned from spraining his other ankle.
Jones joins cornerback Richard Sherman (hamstring), defensive end Dee Ford (hamstring), cornerback K’Waun Williams (concussion) and center Weston Richburg (patellar tendon) among those who suffered injuries against the Saints and will miss at least this week’s game.
Richburg is out for the season, while Sherman and Ford are being viewed as week-to-week.
Shanahan said the nature of hamstring injuries usually means anywhere from two to four weeks, and Sherman said Thursday he could have played this week if necessary and is aiming to return sooner rather than later.
Taking Jones’ spot on the roster is defensive lineman Kentavius Street, who will be designated to return from injured reserve on Saturday.
Street was a 2018 fourth-round draft pick out of North Carolina State, but he has yet to appear in a game for the Niners. He sat out last season after tearing his ACL in the pre-draft process and then had a setback this year when he was forced to have arthroscopic surgery on his knee, landing on injured reserve.
The 49ers opened Street’s practice window last week and feel good enough about him to activate him for Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Falcons. Street had played inside and outside for the Niners, but he is focused on inside now given the opportunities for snaps there.
“Ideally, he’s probably more of an inside guy,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “Of course, rotation and injuries will always dictate where he plays, but we feel like he’s got a chance to be a pretty good football player on the inside, whether it’s at the nose or 3-technique. Working to make sure he gets as much work at that as possible, but understanding that with the attrition that we’ve been having at the D-line, that we may have to flex him if he gets those opportunities.”
Dolphins sign WR DeVante Parker to 4-year contract extension
Parker’s four-extension is worth up to $40 million with an $8 million signing bonus and $20 million guaranteed, according to a source.
In his fifth year in the league, Parker is in the midst of his breakout season. He has a career-high 882 receiving yards and six touchdowns this season, and maybe most importantly he hasn’t missed a game yet for the first time in his NFL career.
“My desire was to have DeVante remain a member of the Dolphin family and we are excited for the future in Miami,” agent Jimmy Gould said in a statement.
The Dolphins offense has centered around Parker since Preston Williams went on injured reserve in early November. Parker has established a strong connection with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has called him the “most consistent part of our offense.”
Playing 16 games and reaching 1,000 receiving yards were two of Parker’s individual goals this season. Parker is 118 receiving yards shy of his first 1,000-yard season, something that is important to him.
“It would be amazing to get it. I’ve never had it since high school,” Parker said. “The team is No. 1, but everybody has goals, and that definitely is one of mine.”
In March, Parker signed a new two-year deal with a team option for 2020. It was essentially a prove-it deal coming off the worst season of his career in 2018. He responded by taking care of his body with better eating and hydration, acupuncture and weekly massages.
The Dolphins coaching staff led by Brian Flores gave Parker a clean slate. Receivers coach Karl Dorrell told him stories of his experience with Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall and challenged Parker to be the player he was coming out of Louisville.
Parker did that, and he’s felt more comfortable than ever in the Dolphins’ new scheme.
“Staying healthy was my top goal,” Parker told ESPN last week. “That has helped change everything. These coaches believed in me. They gave me a second chance when they didn’t have to. I hope I can be here a long time.”
Parker, Miami’s first-round pick in 2015 (14th overall), is rewriting his narrative after four seasons full of injuries and inconsistency. He’s finally showing the potential that made him so tantalizing and the Dolphins rewarded him for it.
Jets’ Adam Gase, Sam Darnold attribute testy sideline exchange to frustration
Adam Gase and a disgusted Sam Darnold engaged in a brief, semi-animated sideline conversation Thursday night that was caught on TV and went viral on social media — the first hint of possible discord between the New York Jets‘ coach and quarterback.
On Friday, they both downplayed the incident, insisting it was just a moment of frustration.
“We were both in the same mind frame where somebody didn’t execute their job, and basically I was bitching about that and he was doing the same thing,” Gase said.
Said Darnold: “We were not in a disagreement at all. It was just me being … you know, I think just frustrated on the circumstances and what was going on in the game at the time.”
The exchange happened with four minutes left in the Jets’ 42-21 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. After an incomplete pass on a fourth-and-1 from the Baltimore 41-yard line, Darnold walked to the sideline and was greeted by Gase, who seemed upset with his young quarterback’s decision making.
Darnold listened for a few seconds, then walked away. He may have muttered something based on the reaction of backup quarterback David Fales, whose eyes got wide.
“David always has that weird look on his face,” Darnold said.
Darnold stopped, came back toward Gase and made a comment to him before waving his hand in a dismissive manner. He walked away again, then turned back. They continued the conversation as the camera cut away.
“For me, it was just where we were in the game, especially not executing, especially on fourth down, a key down. I was just frustrated about the circumstances. It wasn’t anything more than that. We were just having a conversation about not executing the way we’re supposed to, and that was really it.”
The Darnold-Gase relationship is key to the future of the franchise, which has fallen on hard times in recent years. The Jets (5-9) are assured of a fourth straight losing season, their longest such streak in the Super Bowl era.
This is the first season together for Darnold and Gase, who was hired, in large part, because of his background with quarterbacks. His job is to develop Darnold, who has made marginal improvements after an up-and-down rookie year.
Darnold is ranked 27th out of 33 qualifying quarterbacks in passer rating (84.3). His play has been uneven over the last three games, with moments of brilliance — he threw two touchdowns against Baltimore’s tough defense — but also critical errors (14 turnovers).
Gase believes Darnold’s grasp of the offense and command at the line of scrimmage has improved steadily.
“The fact that I’ve see him improve every week — and I look at all the little tiny details that nobody can see or really knows about — that’s what makes me feel really confident that he’s going to be a really good player,” Gase said.
Darnold got off to a terrific start against the Ravens, but he sputtered at the end of the first half. He threw an incomplete pass on a fourth-and-1 from the Baltimore 7-yard line and, on the ensuing possession, threw an interception from the Baltimore 25.
“It just comes down to minimizing those couple of critical errors I make during a game,” Darnold said. “If I can eliminate those, we’ll be just fine.”
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