Something weird stirred in me as I heard loud chants of "MVP!" for Christian McCaffrey this past Sunday.
The Panthers fanbase doesn't chant often. We don't have a whole lot of culture and traditions as a team. The hottest thing in our fan culture currently is a debate on whether "The 'Thers" is a good nickname (it is).
Outside of the occasional polite "Let's Go Panthers" and the video board-directed "Keep Pounding," the only other times I can remember a spontaneous chant at Bank of America Stadium was in 2015, as Cam Newton racked up 14 straight wins en route to his MVP award and a Super Bowl trip.
Not only did Christian McCaffrey inherit Newton's chant, he was also the final player announced in the pregame hype show, and took the podium during the postgame press conference. Both of these roles were previously Newton's.
Run CMC would earn those spots in this game, rushing for 146 yards and two touchdowns, and catching an additional touchdown.
Fast forward a few days later and Cam is out. Many hot takey sports analysts are speculating he may have played his final game as a Carolina Panther. The team has played commendably since Newton went down after game 2 with a foot injury, but the conversation surrounding Newton's eventual return always skewed toward comparisons between him and backup quarterback Kyle Allen.
But that was when we thought he would return. Now faced with the prospect that he may not, we've got a bigger question in front of us than who can throw a ball more accurately.
Cam Newton was the face of this franchise. Is Christian McCaffrey really the guy to take up that mantel?
What do you think of when you think of Cam Newton?
I picture flashy outfits that instantly become memes. I think of dancing so deadly, it caused a Tennessee mom to clutch her pearls in horror. I think about him racking up records as he re-wrote the NFL in his image. I think of the rumors of him handing out turkeys and coats to the homeless on Thanksgiving, no cameras around, and no photo ops. I think of how, should Cam retire at the end of this year, football guru Bill Belichick will have never figured out a way to beat him.
But what do you think of when you think of Christian McCaffrey?
Luke Kuechly is a tackling machine who can read offenses like the Sunday paper.
Donte Jackson is an athletic wonderkid who jaw jacks with the best of them.
Eric Reid is a social justice activist who lays in some nasty hits.
Greg Olsen is a lovable, dependable father figure with a keen eye for the game.
But who is Christian McCaffrey?
He's really, really good at football, probably the third best at his position. Being the face of a franchise requires so much more than talent. There's a spark of ubiquity required, a magnetism. Cam Newton once said he dreamed of being "an entertainer and an icon," and in doing so, he helped thrust Charlotte into the national spotlight. We've all benefited from it, football fans or not.
Christian McCaffrey is a great player. No doubt about it. But can he be an icon? Can he be what this city is known for on a national level? Does he drive Fan Shop visits? Could you see urban youths painting his mural on the side of a building in North Charlotte?
There are four things a franchise face should do.
Play at an elite level
Elevate the prestige of a team and a city
Engage with the community through service and charitable giving
Transcend the sport of football
First, he definitely plays at an elite level. I don't have to wax on and on about his yards from scrimmage, his stamina, his touchdowns, or how he's among the top two or three running backs in the league, and the top five or six players period. Big check there.
Second, I believe he's already proving he can elevate the team. McCaffrey isn't dragging us kicking and screaming to relevance, as the defense is at the top of the league in sacks and takeaways. Kyle Allen is playing clean football as well. But ask any NFL fan who our best player is and 19 out of 20 will say Christian McCaffrey. I haven't seen any evidence that he elevate the city yet though. He hasn't cracked the top 10 in jersey sales, despite easily being in the top 10 players in the league. Being outsold by Daniel Jones? That's gotta sting.
Third, I have no doubt he can engage with the community. He's already done a lot of work for Global Down Syndrome, and kids seem to go wild for him at appearances. Joining the likes of Steve Smith, Greg Olsen, and Julius Peppers as top community service athletes is something I could easily see Christian McCaffrey doing.
Lastly, where CMC stumbles the most: I'm really not sure if he can transcend football. Cam Newton taught us so much about race, culture, and double standards. He showed us the beauty of a blended family. The day he walked into Charlotte, he became our biggest celebrity. Everything he did made waves: his hair, his scooter, his diet, his personal hatter. Christian McCaffrey at times fades into the background even in NFL discussions, despite his talent level. It's not fair, but with all that ability, struggling to break through in football media doesn't bode well for McCaffrey's odds at being a mainstream talent.
Although to be fair, his humblebrag IG story with girlfriend Olivia Culpo did get some fun gossip rag coverage.
None of this takes away from the most important thing: the man can run the football.
And that's why if I had to bet the house as to whether Christian McCaffrey can be the face of this franchise, I'm putting my money on Run CMC. When it comes down to it, there's one thing he can do for this city that Cam Newton didn't get to accomplish. It's something Kemba Walker never did, nor did Steve Smith or Julius Peppers or Mugsy Bogues or Dell Curry.
Christian McCaffrey can win this city a world championship. In doing so, he wouldn't only be the face of the Carolina Panthers franchise. He'll be the face of this city in the history books.