Wednesday, April 17, 2024
Wednesday, April 17, 2024
Home NFLSan Francisco 49ers Christian McCaffrey is a Super Bowl reminder that running backs still matter

Christian McCaffrey is a Super Bowl reminder that running backs still matter

by Moxieplay
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When the San Francisco 49ers traded for Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey in the middle of the 2022 season, they were going against the grain. Conventional wisdom had been working against running backs for a decade or longer, as team after team in the NFL realized that they could find effective tailbacks without using premium draft picks or gaudy free agent contracts to get them. Running backs, the league has come to know, are a relatively fungible group.

But McCaffrey was a different beast, so the 49ers gave up a small ransom to get him: four draft picks over two years: a second-, third-, fourth-, and fifth-rounder. McCaffrey played well down the stretch in 2022, but then the Niners pushed their chips in even further before this season: They restructured McCaffrey’s already huge contract to create about $9m in space under the salary cap this year. The bill will be due later, and it will be massive, but the 49ers knew they had a precious window to take their best shot at a Super Bowl. They had a useful quarterback, Brock Purdy, on a cheap rookie contract. They had a Hall of Fame left tackle, Trent Williams, still playing well at 35. And they had two of the best defensive players in the NFL, Nick Bosa and Fred Warner, in their primes.

By delivering elite play at the right time on the 49ers’ organizational calendar, McCaffrey has arguably been the marginal difference that’s pushed the 49ers from a regular elite team to a Super Bowl contestant on Sunday night against the Kansas City Chiefs. While the Kansas City offense pivots around Patrick Mahomes and his star tight end Travis Kelce, who are still formidable after so many years together, the 49ers offense scores because of a multifaceted attack that shows no weaknesses running or passing the ball.

And of course, it is McCaffrey whose hands are all over that offense. Everything the 49ers do runs through him in one way or another. Running back value may be on the wane, but McCaffrey is an example of what can happen when a team has a truly special one who contributes to the offense in myriad ways.

McCaffrey led the league in rushing by a wide margin, his 1,459 ground yards nearly 300 clear of second-place Derrick Henry. But that’s only part of the story. He was wildly efficient, posting a 5.4-yard average rush on 272 carries. With his 67 receptions included, he led the league with 339 touches and averaged six yards per touch. Only one running back averaged more; that was a backup (the Miami Dolphins’ De’Von Achane) who had about one-third of McCaffrey’s workload. There aren’t NFL players who get the ball more than McCaffrey, and there aren’t even players who get it nearly as often while posting anything like his efficiency stats. The seventh-year professional, who was a collegiate star at Stanford before starting his career with Carolina, is in his own class.

Being a 49er has certainly helped him. McCaffrey averages 3.2 yards per carry before contact by a defender, as his offensive line – led by the ageless Williams – pushes would-be tacklers out of his way. That figure led the league among running backs in the regular season, and eclipsed the total average yards per carry for a few NFL backs. That does not mean that McCaffrey has gotten a free ride. His 2.2 yards after contact were sixth-best in the NFL, as defenders found that getting a hand on McCaffrey isn’t much more pleasant than being unable to get to him at all. McCaffrey is famously elusive, but his strength this year wasn’t even that he made defensive players miss. (His 15 broken tackles tied him for 17th-most in the NFL.) Instead, it was that tackling McCaffrey is brutal, requiring a lot of strength and real estate. Getting to him was just part of the battle.

Attempting to stop Christian McCaffrey can be a bruising experience. Photograph: Kyle Terada/USA Today Sports

McCaffrey’s sure-handedness supplements his explosiveness. He did not drop a pass this season on his 83 receiving targets. He fumbled three times, which is a big number for him, but overall he displayed astonishing hands. The 49ers tried to give him the ball more than 350 times this season. McCaffrey was responsible for letting it fall to the ground on three of those plays, a rate of just 0.8%.

The 27-year-old has a solid case for one day entering the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and a Super Bowl would be an excellent resume item for a player who already has made two All-Pro teams. McCaffrey should also do well in the NFL’s postseason awards announced this weekend, as he already won the American football writers’ association’s Offensive Player of the Year honor for the season. If non-quarterbacks were seriously considered for league MVP honors, McCaffrey would be a candidate for that one, too.

Winning the Super Bowl would also get McCaffrey a third of the way to matching his dad, Ed, who won three of them during a 13-year career spent mostly with the Denver Broncos. One of Ed’s rings came with this same 49ers franchise in 1994, but he didn’t record a touch in that Niners Super Bowl win. For the team to get another now, Christian may need to touch the ball a few more times. Maybe about 30?

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