SANTA CLARA, Calif. — As San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York tells the story, coach Kyle Shanahan took some convincing before deciding it was worth dealing a boatload of draft picks before last season’s trade deadline for Christian McCaffrey.
With most teams around the NFL downgrading the value of running backs, the Niners ultimately decided the cost of four draft picks was worth it to acquire McCaffrey from Carolina if they wanted to have a team worthy of winning a championship.
That move was a big step in lifting the 49ers from a good offense to perhaps the most efficient in the NFL and is a major reason why San Francisco is preparing to play the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl on Sunday.
“That’s the time that you want to push your chips in the middle,” York said. “I feel like that’s where we were with Christian. We did give up a lot. But I think we have one of the best, if not the best player in the on our team.”
McCaffrey has proven to be as valuable as anyone on the 49ers after leading the NFL in yards from scrimmage (2,023), tying for the lead in touchdowns (21) and generating the most first downs (114) in the regular season.
That earned McCaffrey a unanimous spot as the All-Pro running back and made him a finalist for both the MVP and Offensive Player of the Year awards that will he handed out this week.
He’s added four more touchdowns and 260 yards from scrimmage in two playoff wins.
“He’s why our pass game and our play-action pass and all that kind of stuff opened up because he sort of sets the standard with the run game and then when we do pass the ball, he’s there in our play,” quarterback Brock Purdy said.
“He catches the ball, he makes guys miss, he can go up against safeties and linebackers and make them miss and stuff in the pass game. And then he scores touchdowns. His stats are crazy. So, he’s definitely a valued player and I think the most valued player.”
There are few backs as versatile as McCaffrey. He can run inside or outside. He excels at picking up blitzes as well as running pass patterns out of the backfield. Or he can line up in the slot or out wide and run pass patterns as well as many receivers.
That versatility can sometimes be a curse with some coaches viewing him more as a scat back than a traditional three-down back who can pound it between the tackles for positive yards play after play such as the old-school backs from the 1970s and ’80s.
That’s why McCaffrey made sure Shanahan knew as soon as he arrived that he could handle the heavy load of a three-down back who was physical enough to gain the tough yards when needed.
“It’s probably part of my insecurities and competitiveness. I want to be a complete back,” he said. “I think this dates back to when I was in middle school and high school. … I had coaches in the NFL who didn’t think I could run in between the tackles. So I think, for me, it’ll always be in the back of my head and something that I take a lot of pride in, just being a complete back.”
McCaffrey is meticulous about how he takes care of his body starting in the offseason and how hard he works during the season.
That helped McCaffrey play the fourth-most snaps of any running back in the league this season as he rarely takes a play off and gives so much effort even when his number isn’t called that Shanahan called him the best player he has ever seen without the ball.
“The guy is insane in how hard he prepares, not just in the season, but I saw him like a week after the season last year and he had a drink with me and he actually had a second one,” Shanahan said. “He is like, ‘well, only got like four more days left, so I’m going to have a couple for the next four days.’ I’m like, ‘dude we just finished like five days ago.’ He gives himself like 12 days off and he is right back to preparing.”
McCaffrey made his debut for the 49ers last season against the Chiefs two days after arriving. He barely knew his teammates’ names and didn’t know the playbook at all, so other offensive players just pointed him in the right direction after the play was called in the huddle.
McCaffrey managed to rush for 38 yards on four carries and catch two passes for 24 yards in that game but took off the following week when he had a TD run, catch and pass in a win against the Rams. He has scored 38 TDs in his 31 starts in the regular season and playoffs.
“Thank god we got them then and not after they had him for two or three weeks,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. “It’s scary to watch all the weapons they have. He’s one piece of it. A big piece of it.”
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