CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Dan Smoker Sr. hasn’t met Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey.

At least, not consciously.

Smoker, 72, doesn’t remember how McCaffrey and his friends helped save Smoker’s life after a 20-foot fall during a March hike in Castle Rock, Colorado. He doesn’t remember that McCaffrey and his family came to see him the next day at Sky Ridge Medical Center in Denver.

He doesn’t remember anything about what happened for seven days after the fall because he was on a ventilator in critical but stable condition.

McCaffrey remembers everything about that day.

The accident had such a profound impact on the eighth pick of the 2017 draft that it is carrying over onto the football field as he prepares for his second NFL season.

He has made plans to pay for Smoker, who is back home in Cincinnati after two months of rehab in Colorado, and his family to attend Carolina’s Sept. 23 game against the Bengals at Bank of America Stadium.

“You see something like that, you definitely have a better appreciation for life, and you take every moment in and can’t take anything for granted,” McCaffrey said before the Panthers departed for their last break before training camp. “We had a little decompression time after that where we just looked at life, and you realize it can really be gone in a split second, and you have to appreciate every single moment.”

What happened on that hike made such an impression on McCaffrey that he has shared it with running backs coach Jim Skipper and teammates, and he hasn’t hesitated to say it’s the most unusual thing that has happened during an offseason in which he got a new offensive coordinator and is adjusting to a new scheme.

“It does remind you how fickle life can be,” Skipper said. “There ain’t no guarantee of tomorrow.”

Not that McCaffrey has worked any harder this offseason than last because of the accident. According to coaches and teammates throughout his career, McCaffrey always gives maximum effort. But he is practicing with more of a purpose than ever, in part because of the accident and in part because he’s determined to meet expectations from a year ago that he fell short of in terms of being the most dynamic back in his draft class.

The former Stanford star is practicing with more confidence after a full offseason with the team, unlike a year ago, when he missed offseason workouts because of a rule that prohibits a rookie from joining a team before his college semester ends.

“He sees everything clearly,” Skipper said. “He sees the defense. He knows the protections. So all it’s done is elevate his game because he can play quicker.”

‘New team, new me’

Jonathan Stewart set the bar high for McCaffrey early in training camp a year ago.

“He’s pretty unstoppable as far as coming out of the backfield and running routes,” the Pro Bowl running back said. “I can tell you now there’s not going to be anybody in this league that can cover him one-on-one. He’s a special player.”

McCaffrey was special in that he led the Panthers in receptions, with 80 for 651 yards and five touchdowns. But because Stewart remained the featured back and injuries at receiver forced McCaffrey to play a bigger role in the slot, the 5-foot-10, 205-pound back was limited to 435 yards rushing on 117 carries.

Fellow rookie backs Alvin Kamara (Saints), Kareem Hunt (Chiefs) and Leonard Fournette (Jaguars) overshadowed him during the 2017 season. Hunt and Fournette each topped 1,000 yards rushing. Kamara and Hunt were Co-Offensive Rookies of the Year.

“He didn’t have a great year,” Skipper said. “He didn’t have a bad one, either.”

The Panthers expect more out of McCaffrey in 2018. Stewart was released, elevating McCaffrey to the featured back role, even though former Denver standout C.J. Anderson was signed in free agency.

Coach Ron Rivera said there’s no reason McCaffrey can’t reach 200 carries, referring to how new offensive coordinator Norv Turner has used featured backs in the past.

Skipper wouldn’t put a number on McCaffrey’s carries. He also wouldn’t limit the expectations.

“All you want with football is put the ball in the playmakers’ hands,” he said. “So in some kind of way, he’s going to get his touches.”

The confidence he saw in McCaffrey throughout offseason workouts makes Skipper more confident that McCaffrey can be the every-down back he was at Stanford, where in 2015 he broke Barry Sanders’ NCAA single-season record for all-purpose yardage (3,250). Skipper doesn’t see Turner overloading McCaffrey with responsibilities as sometimes happened a year ago.

“When he got here, he was rushing through everything,” said Skipper, reminding again that McCaffrey missed most of organized team activities in 2017. “He never relaxed because everything was boom, boom, boom, boom. It was all new on him.

“Now he can catch his breath. He’s seeing things clearer, he’s playing faster, he’s playing with more confidence. All he has to do is carry it over and have a little more success once we start preseason, and it’ll go from there.”

McCaffrey, in typical fashion, brushed off how he will do with an expanded role.

“Not up to me, man,” he said. “I just show up every day. Everybody on the team wants the ball as much as possible, but that’s football. You should want to compete. We’re here to win football games, so whatever that means, whatever that takes, that’s what we’re going to do.”

McCaffrey also isn’t looking back at his rookie season because he has a new coordinator and a lot of new weapons around him.

“I watched all the film from last year to see what I can improve on,” he said. “I’ve moved on. It’s a new team, new me.”

Great expectations

Smoker has watched most of McCaffrey’s interviews since his accident. He has been impressed by what he has seen and heard.

“I didn’t even know who Christian was before this, so I’ve learned a lot about him,” he said. “He’s somebody with very high integrity, and I look forward to meeting him.”

Smoker remains in physical therapy, but he has come a long way. He has been out of a wheelchair for four weeks and, after several weeks of working with a walker, can get around with a cane now.

He can’t wait until September to walk up to McCaffrey in Charlotte and personally thank him for being so fast to call 911 and help stabilize him after the accident.

The longtime Bengals fan might even pull for the Panthers. He’ll definitely pull for McCaffrey.

“The Bengals haven’t been doing well the last two or three years,” Smoker said with a laugh. “They better shape up, or I might have to start rooting for the Panthers. I’ll for sure be rooting for Christian and anything he does.”

Expectations for McCaffrey will be higher than ever. Skipper compares the running back to former New York Giants Pro Bowler Tiki Barber, whose 2,390 total yards in 2005 were the second most by a running back in a season in NFL history.

“Listen, he’s a good football player, and good things are going to happen to him,” Skipper said. “The more he touches that ball, the more plays he’ll start making. So it’s a natural progression to take the next step, and he’s right on cue with that.”

Smoker is thankful that McCaffrey and his friends were right on cue with their response to his fall. He isn’t surprised the accident has had a profound impact on the 22-year-old because it has also had a profound impact on him.

“It just makes me very thankful every day,” Smoker said. “I’m a strong Christian. It wasn’t a coincidence [McCaffrey] and the people were there at the time I fell.”



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