SANTA CLARA – One day before Halloween last year, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan unleashed all his tricks with his newest treat in star running back Christian McCaffrey in Week 8 against the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium.
McCaffrey’s first game as a Niner, a 21-point loss to the eventual Super Bowl-champion Kansas City Chiefs, was nothing more than a preview of what he can do in red and gold. McCaffrey carried the ball eight times for 38 yards and caught both his targets for another 24 yards, totaling 62 yards three days after being traded from the Carolina Panthers to San Francisco.
His first start in a 49ers jersey the next week was that of a firework ready to burst the moment flame met wick.
"Threw a touchdown, caught a touchdown, ran for a touchdown. That's cool, isn't” it? George Kittle said Thursday after 49ers practice at Levi’s Stadium. “Yeah, he's pretty good at football."
'Pretty good' is an obvious understatement, especially for McCaffrey’s historic performance in the 49ers’ 31-14 win over the Rams last year. McCaffrey ran for 94 yards on 18 carries, including a 1-yard touchdown. He caught eight passes for 55 yards and hauled in a 9-yard touchdown from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. But McCaffrey’s first time in the end zone for the 49ers came on a 34-yard pass where he hit wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk in stride.
The trifecta made McCaffrey the first 49er ever to record a rushing, receiving and passing touchdown all in the same game. He also became only the second running back to complete all three scores in a game since the 1970 merger, joining LaDainian Tomlinson who did so in 2005.
Trading for McCaffrey gave 49ers fans, players and coaches alike reasons to dream about how coach Kyle Shanahan could use the joystick all across the field. McCaffrey’s day was music to the ears of the 49ers Faithful, and the beginning of a nightmare for the rest of the league.
San Francisco 49ers
"Right when we got him, I was like, 'It's like Madden now for Kyle, he can just make up whatever he wants to make up,’” Kittle said. “Who do you want to take away?”
Kittle then used the 49ers’ Week 1 30-7 road thrashing of the Pittsburgh Steelers last week as a prime example. The tight end was held to 19 receiving yards on three catches while being followed by All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. On the other hand, McCaffrey rushed for 152 yards and one touchdown on 22 carries, Brandon Aiyuk caught both of Brock Purdy’s touchdown passes for a total of eight receptions for 129 yards and Deebo Samuel added 55 receiving yards on five catches and another eight rushing yards on two carries.
“You left Deebo, Aiyuk and Christian McCaffrey 1-on-1 with everyone else on the field,” Kittle said. “Congratulations. How'd that go for you guys?
“If whatever team wants to do that ... when you have a running back that can pick up pressure and then if you don't pressure you get to go out and run a choice route on a linebacker, there's not many linebackers who are going to cover a guy like Christian McCaffrey.”
Purdy at the time of McCaffrey’s arrival still was backing up Garoppolo on the 49ers’ depth chart but could feel the excitement the moment the deal went through. How McCaffrey was able to grasp Shanahan’s complex offense after only a few days impressed the young quarterback enough, only to see that outdone by McCaffrey’s wide-ranging skill set in Southern California.
McCaffrey on Thursday said he was appreciative of Kittle’s ‘Madden’ comments, placing the largest emphasis on how Shanahan’s offense always requires constant understanding.
“I think in Kyle’s offense you’re always learning,” McCaffrey said of the biggest lesson he has gained since his first start as a 49er. “Each week you’re learning something new. I think that there’s purpose behind every play. Each play has a life of its own and like [49ers running backs coach Bobby Turner] always says, for every play, there’s a coaching point.
“I just have enjoyed learning the intricacies of why he’s calling certain plays and it’s impressive to be in those meetings.”
The McCaffrey Show was about more than the stats of one player, too. It was all about the scoreboard. The 49ers were a lowly 3-4 going into that game with their NFC West foes. Well, the “4” remained but the “3” did not. McCaffrey’s three-touchdown game helped spark a 12-game win streak, including the playoffs before a 49ers team without a functioning quarterback fell to the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship Game.
Over those 12 games, McCaffrey scored 13 touchdowns – seven on the ground, five as a receiver and one through the air as a passer. He totaled 862 rushing yards on 176 carries and 479 receiving yards on 58 receptions in that span last season.
Take away the conference championship and replace that with the 2023 season opener and McCaffrey has averaged 116 yards (78 rushing and 38 receiving) per game for the 49ers as a starter when his quarterback is intact. Every time the ball hits his hands in Shanahan’s offense it can be a touchdown waiting to happen. Some plays more than others, though an offensive explosion always is the inclination.
“Hopefully all of them,” McCaffrey said. “We all have that mindset going into every play, we just got to be ready for it.”
Rams coach Sean McVay, defensive coordinator Raheem Morris and the rest of the Los Angeles coaching staff are sure to be scheming ways to contain McCaffrey before Sunday’s latest 49ers-Rams showdown in LA, all while Shanahan looks to let him free yet again. Or, Shanahan can turn to one of his other home-run threats, making the 49ers’ Madden-esque offense that much more dangerous.