49ers could benefit from Kyle Shanahan's hot-hand approach to running backs

Shanahan could take hot-hand approach with CMC, Mitchell originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

  • Programming note: Matt Maiocco's full interview with Kyle Shanahan airs at 4:30 p.m. PT on Saturday during "49ers Game Plan" on NBC Sports Bay Area

AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — The last time the 49ers went to the Super Bowl, coach Kyle Shanahan deployed a “hot-hand” approach at running back.

The blockbuster trade that brought Christian McCaffrey to the 49ers does not mean Shanahan is now sold on the idea of having one running back carry the vast majority of the load.

That point was proven last week when Elijah Mitchell, fresh off injured reserve from a knee injury, carried the ball a team-leading 18 times for 89 yards in a victory over the Lost Angeles Chargers.

McCaffrey had just 38 yards rushing on 14 carries while also catching four passes for 39 yards.

“I try not to overthink that stuff,” Shanahan said on the latest episode of "49ers Game Plan." “We got two really good players, so you want to get both of them the ball. You want to keep them both fresh, you want to keep them both healthy, keep attacking.”

The 49ers had a balanced running attack in 2019 with Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman and Matt Breida en route to the NFC Championship. Each player gained more than 500 yards rushing. Mostert led the way 772 yards and eight touchdowns in the regular season while not starting any games.

Jeff Wilson, who was traded to the Miami Dolphins after the 49ers dealt for McCaffrey, still leads the 49ers this season with 468 yards rushing.

McCaffrey has 170 yards and two touchdowns on 40 attempts (4.3 average) with the 49ers, while Mitchell has 130 yards on 24 carries (5.4 average).

“I’ll give it to either one of them,” Shanahan said. “It really doesn’t matter to me.”

McCaffrey was about the only option for the Carolina Panthers during his 5 1/2 seasons with the club.

Shanahan believes McCaffrey can benefit from a situation in which he can spend a little more time on the sideline.

“Christian is used to playing a lot,” Shanahan said. “He’s done that his whole career, and he’s got the stamina to do it. But what I try to tell him is he doesn’t have to do it.

"Yeah, I want him out there. And, yeah, he’s as competitive as can be, and he can help us win a lot of games. So can Elijah, and I think we have other backs on the roster who can, too. But I do think it helps all these guys, and that’s what’s fun about it.”

Shanahan said he thinks about how to balance the usage of his running backs during the week as the team puts together the game plan.

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But once the games begin, Shanahan lets the circumstances of the action dictate how the playing time and touches are allocated.

“In a 3 1/2-hour span, we’re just completely about trying to think what’s the best way for our team to win,” he said. “Sometimes it’s keeping guys fresh. Sometimes it’s riding a guy. Sometimes it’s getting a guy the ball however you can, and sometimes it’s playing to another side of the ball. All of those things go into account.”

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