Super Bowl 2024: Christian McCaffrey quickly moving up the list of all-time great RBs

Is he a future Hall of Famer? His coaches and teammates think so

HENDERSON, Nev. — San Francisco 49ers running backs coach Bobby Turner was talking about what makes Christian McCaffrey special, and it’s a long list.

The talent, the professionalism, the determination. Then he got to the biggest compliment of all.

“He sees himself as a future Hall of Famer,” Turner said.

Is he a future Hall of Famer?

“Yes,” Turner said without hesitation. “Yes.”

Turner can speak to that. One of the running backs he coached during his nearly three NFL decades was Terrell Davis, a Hall of Famer.

McCaffrey is putting himself not just in the Hall of Fame conversation but also in the debate about the best running backs ever — not that he’s worried about that yet, with Super Bowl LVIII coming up.

“I don’t have a lot of thoughts about it with the Super Bowl ahead of us,” said McCaffrey, the favorite to win NFL Offensive Player of the Year on Thursday. “The individual awards and all the individual accolades you get are great, but there’s nothing bigger than the Super Bowl. I realized that when they announced All-Pro and Pro Bowl and all those things. I’m extremely grateful for those, and I don’t take them lightly, and I don’t take them for granted, but the opportunity to play in the Super Bowl is the biggest thing on the planet. I think that’s what this whole game is about.”

But still, to have a coach who has worked with a Hall of Famer put you in that class …

“For him to say that? It means a lot,” McCaffrey said.

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Where does Christian McCaffrey rank?

The discussion of the greatest running backs ever usually has a clear top four: Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Jim Brown and Walter Payton. Order them however you’d like, and maybe make an impassioned speech for O.J. Simpson, Adrian Peterson or LaDainian Tomlinson to be included in that group, but that’s typically the top four. McCaffrey isn’t close to that tier yet.

But for a spot slightly behind that group, perhaps creeping up on top-10-ever talk, McCaffrey is making an argument. And it might have snuck up on you.

McCaffrey has 10,505 total yards from scrimmage and 81 touchdowns. That’s not getting him too high up the career list yet (he’s 102nd in yards and tied for 69th in touchdowns), but on a per-game basis, it gets more interesting.

McCaffrey averages 115.4 yards per game from scrimmage. There are three names ahead of him on that all-time list: Brown, Billy Simms and Barry Sanders. The two players behind McCaffrey are Davis and Payton.

McCaffrey missed most of the 2020 and 2021 seasons due to injury, which set him back, but he has been excellent in his healthy seasons. He has led the NFL in yards from scrimmage twice, has led the NFL in touchdowns twice and won his first rushing title this season. Peterson led the NFL in yards from scrimmage twice and in touchdowns once. Marshall Faulk led in yards twice and in touchdowns twice. Tomlinson led those categories once. Gale Sayers led once in yards, never in touchdowns.

Sayers, Faulk, Peterson and Tomlinson are some of the names that show up on practically every all-time running backs list. In terms of peak seasons, McCaffrey compares well to all of them. In 2019 with the Carolina Panthers, he had a 2,392-yard season, third-most all time, and he has been dominant with the 49ers.

He’s probably closer to the all-time top 10 than he gets credit for. Maybe it will become a bigger story if the 49ers win a Super Bowl. And, of course, McCaffrey is just 27 years old, coming off an All-Pro season. He has plenty of time to add to his legacy.

Is Christian McCaffrey a future Hall of Famer? (Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images)
Is Christian McCaffrey a future Hall of Famer? (Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images)

McCaffrey chases a Super Bowl

On the future Hall of Fame talk, McCaffrey’s teammates see it, too.

“One hundred percent,” 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “You can never predict what’s going to happen going forward, but what he’s done and what we expect him to do year in and year out, I think, 100 percent puts him on the path for a Hall of Fame career.”

The path to the Hall of Fame and climbing up the all-time lists gets easier with a Super Bowl ring. That matters most for the legacies of coaches and quarterbacks, but it matters for all players. If McCaffrey can pair his great stats and awards with a big role in a Super Bowl win on Sunday, it would lift him higher.

He already has a growing résumé, and he’s taking his place among some of the legends who have played the position.

“He’s right there at the top of the list,” Turner said. “Bottom line, it’s his mindset. He sees himself as a future Hall of Famer, and that’s the way he prepares.”