By beating Rams in Christian McCaffrey sweepstakes, 49ers re-emerge as NFC contenders

INGLEWOOD, Calif. — As he was formulating his game plan to attack the Los Angeles Rams last Thursday night, San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan raised a pressing question about his team’s newest weapon.

“Does anyone know if Christian can throw?” Shanahan shouted to any assistants within earshot.

When tight ends coach Brian Fleury texted a clip of McCaffrey lofting a 50-yard touchdown pass from December 2018, that was all Shanahan needed to see. Anticipating that the Rams would aggressively swarm to the ball whenever Christian McCaffrey caught a pass in the flat, Shanahan decided to try to exploit that tendency by adding a half-back pass to his repertoire of trick plays.

Shanahan dialed up his secret twist early in Sunday’s second quarter, long before the 49ers pulled away for a season-changing 31-14 victory. Jimmy Garoppolo threw a backward pass to McCaffrey in the flat. The threat of McCaffrey in the open field caused the entire Rams secondary to bite. And McCaffrey was able to float a high-arcing deep ball to a wide-open Brandon Aiyuk for a 34-yard touchdown.

“We knew how good of a runner [McCaffrey] was on plays like this,” Shanahan said with a smile. “We were really hoping he was a good thrower. Once we knew that, we were pretty excited.”

San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey passes for a touchdown on a trick play during the first half of an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams Sunday, Oct. 30, 2022, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)
San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey passes for a touchdown on a trick play during the first half against the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday afternoon. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

McCaffrey’s touchdown pass was the highlight of a remarkable day for the running back who the 49ers acquired from Carolina just 10 days ago. He also caught a third-quarter touchdown pass and ran for a fourth-quarter score, making him the first player to achieve the touchdown triple crown in a single game since LaDainian Tomlinson did it in 2005.

The sight of McCaffrey celebrating a trio of touchdowns exemplified why the 49ers spent lavishly to acquire him. Shanahan and general manager John Lynch sent four draft picks to the Panthers because they believe that McCaffrey solidifies the 49ers as contenders in a largely underwhelming NFC.

While the 49ers have a quarterback position in flux, a flawed offensive line and a defense that is riddled with injuries, McCaffrey papers over some of those holes. He adds to an already potent rushing attack and gives Garoppolo a badly needed safety valve when he doesn’t have time to find Aiyuk, George Kittle and Deebo Samuel downfield.

The instant chemistry between Garoppolo and McCaffrey was on display late in Sunday’s third quarter with the 49ers driving for the go-ahead touchdown. Although Garoppolo’s first read was elsewhere, his eyes came back to McCaffrey in the flat. When defensive back Nick Scott broke on that route, McCaffrey improvised and Garoppolo lofted a perfectly weighted pass over Scott for a 9-yard touchdown pass.

“Just a little bit of backyard football,” a grinning McCaffrey said afterward.

INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 30: Christian McCaffrey #23 of the San Francisco 49ers catches the ball for a touchdown as Jalen Ramsey #5 and Taylor Rapp #24 of the Los Angeles Rams defend during the third quarter at SoFi Stadium on October 30, 2022 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Had the 49ers lost Sunday, they would have fallen to 3-5, an uncomfortable place to be for any team with Super Bowl aspirations, let alone one that just went all-in on a trade for a 26-year-old running back. The 49ers instead enter their bye week 4-4, one game behind the surprising first-place Seattle Seahawks but with plenty of time to get healthy, fully incorporate McCaffrey and mount a second-half surge.

The unwanted questions shift to the reigning Super Bowl champion Rams, who lost to the 49ers for the eighth straight time in the regular season and fell to 3-4 this season. Sunday wasn’t just an example of why the 49ers paid up to land McCaffrey. It was also a reminder of why the Rams may regret that they didn’t.

The Rams reportedly had interest in McCaffrey but couldn’t stomach offering the draft capital that the 49ers did, notable for a team that’s notoriously willing to do just that to acquire a veteran star. That decision looked regrettable for at least one Sunday as McCaffrey piled up 149 total yards and the Rams’ stable of no-name running backs made little impact.

Ronnie Rivers, an undrafted free agent previously waived in August by Seattle and Arizona, made a surprise start. He ran eight times for 21 yards.

Veterans Darrell Henderson Jr. and Malcolm Brown weren’t any more effective. They combined for nine carries for 26 yards.

The Rams’ inability to move the ball on the ground was most glaring during a first-quarter scoring drive. They resorted to throwing fade patterns at the goal line before 34-year-old quarterback Matthew Stafford put his body at risk diving for the pylon.

“The run game wasn’t good enough,” Rams head coach Sean McVay said. While the Rams buit a 14-10 halftime lead with an assortment of screens and short passing plays, McVay admitted they “weren’t able to sustain that in the second half.”

There’s no obvious running back solution on the Rams’ roster with Cam Akers inactive and on the trading block and unproven fifth-round draft pick Kyren Williams not yet healthy enough to play. The Rams have until Tuesday’s trade deadline to decide whether they’re in the market for Kareem Hunt, Alvin Kamara or some other costly veteran running back.

With no threat of a Rams running game, the 49ers' pass rush teed off on Stafford in the second half and the veteran quarterback couldn’t respond. The Rams were so demoralized that McVay had Henderson run on third-and-16 with more than five minutes to go, a play call that 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa saw as a virtual white flag.

“I was kind of surprised when they gave up a little early,” Bosa said. “I was hoping for some more pass rushes there, but I guess they didn’t have confidence in coming back.”

By then, SoFi Stadium was even more overrun with visiting fans than it had been when the game started. The scoreboard said Rams House. The roaring red-clad crowd told a different story.

As the Rams focus on putting Sunday’s loss behind them, the 49ers are excited about what their win portends for the second half of the season. McCaffrey said, “there’s still a lot of meat on the bone that I left out there,” yardage that he expects to chew up as he further studies the playbook and gets to know his new teammates.

One thing that’s clear is that the 49ers will be able to use McCaffrey in a variety of ways — even as a passer. McCaffrey said he has played exclusively running back since age 7, but he was “fired up” when he learned the half-back pass was part of the game plan.

“It was a great call,” McCaffrey said. “We dialed it up at a perfect time.”