SANTA CLARA, Calif. — As the San Francisco 49ers closed in on their fifth consecutive win on Dec. 4, run game coordinator Chris Foerster approached running back Christian McCaffrey with some congratulatory words and a little bit of grief.
But before Foerster could say anything, McCaffrey stood up, looked him in the eyes and in a tone Foerster described as “serious as a heart attack” offered what was essentially an apology.
“[He] goes, ‘I promise I’ll get better, I missed some holes and I left too much out there,'” Foerster said. “‘I won’t let you guys down again. Just give me time. Be patient with me.'”
McCaffrey’s mea culpa would have landed better had he not just torched the Miami Dolphins for 146 scrimmage yards and a receiving touchdown, the latest in an increasingly long line of all-purpose performances that have made McCaffrey the NFL’s most important midseason addition.
“I’m like, ‘Christian, relax man,'” Foerster said. “He wants to be absolutely perfect in everything he does. He’s been like that since he’s been here and I really appreciate that about him.”
Perhaps McCaffrey hasn’t been perfect since arriving in San Francisco via trade Oct. 20, but the 49ers’ record has been since he was placed in the starting lineup. It’s no coincidence that the Niners are 7-0 with him as a starter after starting the season 3-4. It has worked out well for McCaffrey, too, who left the then-1-5 Carolina Panthers and now finds himself the focal point of the NFC West champions.
“It’s hard to put into words,” McCaffrey said. “It’s been a wild roller coaster and obviously we still have a lot more left. … I’m just so fortunate to be a part of this team.”
After an abbreviated appearance against the Kansas City Chiefs in his first game with the 49ers, McCaffrey stepped into the starting role in a Week 8 victory over the Los Angeles Rams, announcing his presence to the NFC West by becoming the fourth player since the 1970 merger to throw for a touchdown, run for one and catch one in the same game.
San Francisco’s offense is averaging roughly 8 points, 15 total yards and 25 rushing yards more per game since McCaffrey joined the starting lineup. A team that leaned more heavily on its defense than just about any NFL squad in the first seven games suddenly had the ability to play complementary football, with McCaffrey’s versatility plugged into an offense that already featured tight end George Kittle and receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk , among others.
In seven games as the 49ers’ starting running back, McCaffrey has 818 scrimmage yards (fourth in the NFL), seven touchdowns (tied for fifth), 257 yards after catch (fourth) and 45 first downs (second among non-quarterbacks). For the season, McCaffrey sits at 1,550 scrimmage yards (third), 10 touchdowns (tied for 10th), 647 yards after catch (third) and 78 first downs (second).
McCaffrey has surpassed 100 scrimmage yards in five games he has started for the 49ers and 10 games overall this season, most in the NFL. He has done that 42 times since entering the NFL in 2017, topping the league in that span.
At minimum, McCaffrey should be a prime candidate for the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year award after injuries cost him 23 games the previous two seasons. Given what he’s meant to the hottest team in the league the past two months, his name should also start popping up in Offensive Player of the Year discussions.
“I’ve never been around a guy who cares more about performing,” defensive end Nick Bosa said. “Adding a guy like that to the team, especially at a position where it’s obviously super important in Kyle’s offense, it was a very important addition …
“Football means everything to him. I don’t think he would be happy if he wasn’t performing at the level that he expects, and even when he is performing well, I think the biggest thing for him is there’s always more. He’s a beast.”
After the Niners acquired McCaffrey, general manager John Lynch referred to him as a “force multiplier” who was not only good enough to produce at a high level but also could raise the level of everyone around him. That has shown up in multiple ways since his arrival in the Bay Area.
For one, it hasn’t mattered who has played quarterback, as McCaffrey has offered the ideal security blanket to Jimmy Garoppolo and rookie Brock Purdy. McCaffrey’s ability to make defenders miss in the open field has produced 20 receiving first downs. He has also served as a sounding board for Purdy, who, in the course of helping McCaffrey learn the playbook after his arrival, grew a quick chemistry with him.
“Just the way he went about things and studying and how serious he is with literally everything that he does, I’m like, ‘Man, this is what greatness looks like,'” Purdy said. “I feel like they always have to account for him because he can do so much. He doesn’t just run the football. He can do stuff out of the backfield, he can line up out as a receiver and make plays that way. Literally there is so much, he’s like a Swiss Army knife.
“We have all these weapons and then Christian can do everything, so I imagine it’s sort of a nightmare being a defensive coordinator trying to plan for Christian.”
As Purdy points out, McCaffrey also brings some gravity to the Niners’ offense. When he isn’t creating offense with the ball in his hands, he’s drawing plenty of attention from opposing defenses, which opens up opportunities for teammates.
On the second play of the third quarter against the Seahawks this past Thursday, Niners coach Kyle Shanahan called a play designed to go to McCaffrey in the flat. Three Seahawks defenders flowed towards McCaffrey on the left side, leaving Kittle, who was Purdy’s fourth read on the play, running free down the sideline. Purdy hit Kittle in stride and the tight end raced 54 yards for a touchdown.
“To have a back who’s such a threat out of the backfield on pass plays, to me as good as anyone in the league at that,” Shanahan said. “Plus the runner he is, pairing him with some of our guys. We haven’t had to force much to him. When he can run the ball, catch checkdowns, also be the main guy on some routes, just a great weapon to garden.”