The 49ers’ addition of Christian McCaffrey has helped elevate their offense to previously unknown heights. It’s also helped provide a glimpse of what head coach Kyle Shanahan has been trying to build on offense since the 2018 offseason.
When San Francisco signed relatively unheralded running back Jerick McKinnon to a four-year deal worth up to $30 million in the 2018 offseason it looked like a pretty sizable reach. McKinnon to that point had just 2,902 scrimmage yards and 12 touchdowns in four years. He was a decent player, but in 58 games with the Vikings he’d started only 14 of them.
On the surface San Francisco gave a career backup running back a pretty substantial deal. Shanahan had other thoughts though, and instead of seeing a backup RB, he saw a player to construct an offense around. McKinnon with Minnesota emerged as a pass-catching threat during his four-year stint with them and brought enough rushing upside to make Shanahan think he could be the focal point of an offense that didn’t have an elite play-making QB.
An ACL injury a week before the 2018 regular season began derailed McKinnon’s inaugural year in red and gold. Another one the following year pushed him out of the 2019 season and effectively dashed Shanahan’s dreams of a do-everything RB who was a matchup nightmare for defensive coordinators.
“I don’t totally think that way,” Shanahan said in 2018 of whether McKinnon would have a specific role. “Jerick, when he’s on the field, he’s not on the field just to catch passes. He’s not on the field just to run the ball. He can do both and when you can do both, it puts defenses a lot more in a bind and gives us a lot more options.”
McKinnon was never healthy enough to fulfill that role for San Francisco and the carousel of RBs they’ve had since then, from Matt Breida to Raheem Mostert to Trey Sermon to Elijah Mitchell, didn’t have the skill set to play the style Shanahan was looking for with McKinnon.
While they found some offensive success with a more traditional running back, they started to stagnate some on that side of the ball, and solutions weren’t going to come via the quarterback position where the 49ers didn’t have the type of player who would be the rising tide that lifted all boats.
Then with their 2022 season hanging in the balance, surrounded by question marks about their offense, McCaffrey hit the trading block. Shanahan, envisioning an even better version of what he was seeking with McKinnon, pounced. The 49ers sent a package of four draft picks to Carolina for the star RB, and the deal almost immediately paid huge dividends for San Francisco.
They’re 10-0 since McCaffrey became fully integrated into the offense in Week 8, and they’re averaging 30.5 points per game in that stretch. Prior to that they were 3-4 and putting up 20.7 points per game.
Their offensive analytics saw a similar jump. Football analytics site RBSDM had the 49ers at 15th in expected points added (EPA) per play. EPA/play gives a numerical value to how much each play impacts a team’s likelihood to score.
Prior to McCaffrey becoming fully involved the 49ers were sitting at -0.001, which means offensively they were by a very small fraction actually detrimental to the team’s chances of winning. Since McCaffrey took the training wheels off after Week 7, San Francisco is second in EPA/play at 0.145, behind only the Chiefs (0.146).
McKinnon was supposed to lead the way for the 49ers in 2018 with a still unproven Garoppolo under center. Now it’s McCaffrey providing the tip of the spear ahead of unproven rookie Brock Purdy. The names are different, but the philosophy is the same. A do-everything RB gives Shanahan a cheat code to impacting defenses and elevating his QB.
The addition of such a versatile weapon out of the backfield catapulted the 49ers’ offense out of its mid-season rut and into the No. 2 seed in the NFC. It’s also provided a glimpse of the offense Shanahan has been trying to build since the 2018 offseason.