May 20, 2024

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Roughly 30 minutes after scoring two touchdowns and moving into second place all-time with a touchdown streak of 16 consecutive games, San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey was fuming.

In the bowels of US Bank Stadium, McCaffrey gritted his teeth and stepped to the podium in an understandably foul mood after his team’s 22-17 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Oct. 23. Talk of records, touchdowns and statistical milestones were the furthest thing from his mind as he used every question as an opportunity to blame himself for a first-quarter fumble he believed cost the Niners the game.

The moment was quintessential McCaffrey, full of the accountability and competitive fire the 49ers hoped they were getting when they traded second-, third-, and fourth-round picks in 2023 and a fifth-round choice in 2024 to the Carolina Panthers for him on Oct. 20, 2022. But there was something a little different about McCaffrey in that moment: anger.

“There are not a lot of guys who are as hard on themselves as he is,” tight end George Kittle said. “You see him make a mistake and he’s very upset about it. And not like emotionally upset. It’s like, ‘I need to be better than that and my expectations for myself are way too high for that’. And you never see him make the same mistake twice … Christian is an elite player.”

McCaffrey rarely shows disgust in public, but that angst was even more surprising because there hasn’t been much to be upset about in his year-plus in San Francisco. As relationships go, this one has been on a prolonged honeymoon in what is shaping up to be one of the most significant midseason trades in NFL history.

Through 22 games (including playoffs), McCaffrey has been the perfect match for the Niners and Kyle Shanahan’s offense, elevating it to new heights with his breakaway rushing ability and receiver-like pass-catching skills. He’s even made a little history, tying Hall of Famer Lenny Moore for the longest streak of consecutive games (including playoffs) with a touchdown at 17, a record he can break Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars (1 p.m. ET, EverBank Stadium, Fox). And McCaffrey is also just one game away from tying Marshall Faulk’s record of 15 career games with a rushing and receiving touchdown.

McCaffrey ranks near the top of nearly every major category for a running back in addition to his record-setting touchdown streak. Since joining the Niners, McCaffrey is first in scrimmage yards (2,453), scrimmage touchdowns (26), rushing yards before contact (975) and 10-plus yard rushes (41), second in rushing touchdowns (17), third in rushing yards (1,636) and fourth in rushing yards after contact (661). Among running backs, he’s fifth in yards per carry (4.9) and first in receptions (96) and receiving yards (817) and second in receiving touchdowns (nine).

All of this has come at a relative bargain. When the Niners acquired McCaffrey, they inherited the remaining 3.5 years on the four-year, $64 million contract he signed with Carolina in 2020. Since the Panthers were responsible for the rest of his signing bonus, the Niners only owe McCaffrey an average of $10.432 million over the deal’s final three seasons.

And McCaffrey’s value to the Niners over the past year-plus goes well beyond eye-popping numbers, highlight-reel plays and dollar figures. On a team flush with star power, McCaffrey’s greatest superpower is his ability to fit in while standing out.

His teammates are most impressed by the behind-the-scenes work he does. According to center Jake Brendel, McCaffrey is one of the few players already in the building when he arrives at 6:15 or 6:30 a.m. and is constantly doing things to take care of his body or develop a deeper understanding of the offense.

The day after McCaffrey injured his oblique in a loss to the Cleveland Browns on Oct. 15, he was texting Shanahan to tell him not to leave him out of the game plan and vowing to play against the Vikings even if he didn’t take a practice rep all week.

“(He means) just a ton,” Shanahan said. “Just how good he has been, how dependable he has been, how reliable he has been, how he learns everything, not just the running backs and stuff. It’s really easy to put a lot on his plate, move him around each week.

“He reminds me of just like a walk-on guy who’s just trying to get people’s attention for working so hard. … It’s a really great example of how to be as a football player.”

In many ways, the Niners have been the ideal fit for McCaffrey. After spending his first five-plus seasons with the Panthers, McCaffrey arrived in San Francisco with gaudy individual numbers but had only played in one postseason contest, which Carolina lost.

With the Niners, McCaffrey joined a team ready to contend for Super Bowls. Add Shanahan’s acumen for designing and calling an offense, the in-depth way him and his staff coaches and McCaffrey’s Bay Area familiarity from his Stanford days, and it took almost no time for McCaffrey to feel comfortable.

“It’s meant the world to me just to be a part of this team, be a part of this organization, and obviously I’m extremely happy to be here,” McCaffrey said. “I’m so thankful that they gave up picks to get me here. It’s changed my perspective on so many things. I feel like I’ve learned so much every day.”

Hours before news of the McCaffrey trade broke, 49ers linebacker Fred Warner and fullback Kyle Juszczyk were in the locker room with other teammates laughing at the idea. Not because they didn’t love the idea of adding McCaffrey, but because they didn’t think it was possible.

After all, the Niners didn’t have a first-round pick the Panthers craved and some other team would surely be willing to pay that price. But none of that happened and when word made its way around the Niners locker room, there was nothing but excitement.

At the time of the deal, San Francisco was 3-3 and struggling to find an offensive identity. The Niners ranked 18th in yards per game (340.17), 19th in points per game (20.33) and 18th in offensive expected points added (minus-0.05). It wasn’t hard for his new teammates to envision how McCaffrey could not only fit but thrive lining up all over the field in San Francisco. Since McCaffrey arrived, the 49ers have averaged 371.3 yards per game (fifth in the NFL), 27.9 points per game (third) and posted 6.67 offensive expected points added per game (second).

“He’s dynamic in all those positions,” Brendel said. “Having a Swiss Army Knife type of guy on your offense, especially this offense where coach Shanahan does a great job of utilizing the personnel in different ways that other people don’t usually do, it just gives us a lot more avenues to be successful.”

On a team with other stars such as Kittle and receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk, McCaffrey has become the unquestioned fulcrum of the offense. His versatility and production have made it increasingly difficult for Shanahan to take him out of games for short periods.

In a given week, Shanahan’s game plan can center on handing it to McCaffrey 25 times, using his gravity to open things up for others, or putting it in his hands in multiple ways like he did in an Oct. 30, 2022, win against the Los Angeles Rams, when he became the fourth player since the 1970 merger to throw for, run for and catch a touchdown in a game.

That versatility, combined with McCaffrey’s obsession to be great, challenges Shanahan and his coaches to never stop seeking creative ways to use him.

“Everyone has those gym rats who just work so hard. … We got a guy like that, who’s also one of the most talented people in the league,” Shanahan said. “So that’s the full package of him and it’s how much he loves football, not just with his heart but also his mind. It’s all he thinks about.”

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