INGLEWOOD, Calif. – The San Francisco 49ers were working on their red zone plans Thursday night when shouts came from coach Kyle Shanahan’s office.
Shanahan posed a simple question to anyone: Can the team’s recently acquired star running back Christian McCaffrey play football? The question was initially silent, but after a while, Shanahan got a text from tight end coach Brian Fleury.
The text is a video from last December. On January 17, 2018, McCaffrey threw a 50-yard touchdown pass against the New Orleans Saints. Satisfied with Fleury’s answer, Shanahan began adding the McCaffrey pass to Sunday’s 31-14 win over the Los Angeles Rams.
Little did Shanahan know this would be the signature drama of McCaffrey’s history-making day.
In the absence of all-around catcher Deebo Samuel, McCaffrey provided the Niners with the ultimate in versatility, throwing, running and hitting a touchdown as the Niners went 4-4 into their bye week.
“I think everyone knows what a great player he is, but I just love his consistency and control over what he does,” Shanahan said. “He’s a very smart player, he plays a lot of balls and stuff, but it’s the consistency of the way he plays. I think he’s a great guy to add to us.”
After tossing and scoring, his 1-yard rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter made McCaffrey the first in the same game since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2005 Players who pitch, run, and catch touchdowns. He is the fourth player after Tomlinson, receiver David Patten and running back Walter Payton to complete a three-game winning streak since the 1970 merger.
It was the Niners’ eighth straight regular-season win over the Rams, but McCaffrey was the first to get a taste of that rivalry. He’s a good fit, with a hand from 183 yards from the scrimmage, which includes 94 rushes and 27 touches on 55 catches.
After the game, the soft-spoken McCaffrey didn’t care as much about his individual performance as he did in his first win with the 49ers.
“It’s fantastic,” McCaffrey said. “Obviously, these things are really cool. I think the most important thing is to win and play games like this in the second half … but I’m just proud to be a 49er and it feels good to win today.”
McCaffrey started the Niners’ score with his second career touchdown pass. With 12:10 left in the second quarter, the Rams’ second-and-eighth with 34 points, Niners quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo pitched a flat to McCaffrey on the right. McCaffrey caught the ball behind the line of scrimmage and rolled to his right before looking deep on the right for perimeter Brandon Ayuk.
McCaffrey’s pass had enough air for Iyuk to turn multiple times and drag it for a touchdown, and a Robbie Gould extra put it at 7.
“That was a point,” tight end George Kittle said. “Perfect. Great pass, great catch.”
In fact, McCaffrey’s touchdown catch was probably his most impressive performance of the day. Garoppolo pulled a pass from the Rams’ No. 9 hole with 1:51 left in the third quarter. Garoppolo swept the field and there was no one open, so he moved up in the pocket as the Niners began to scramble for practice.
McCaffrey was the fifth option during the pass, and he swayed on the right sideline. Garoppolo held the ball high and McCaffrey jumped high to grab a touchdown to give the Niners a 17-14 lead and they wouldn’t give up.
The touchdown was McCaffrey’s first as Niner and put him in rare company in franchise history. McCaffrey and Emmanuel Sanders (Week 14, 2019) are the only Niners to have both a passing and receiving touchdown in the same game in the past 70 years.
“I read the entire reading from left to right,” Garoppolo said. “He turned it on. It’s just a footballer… It’s not really how the script was written. He just made a game.”
McCaffrey’s big day came in his second game as a Niner and his first after a full week of practice. San Francisco trades second-, third- and fourth-round picks in 2023 and a fifth-round pick in 2024 to the Panthers in exchange for McCaffrey. 20 transactions.
To get up to speed quickly, McCaffrey has been spending long hours at the Nynas facility working with assistant coaches Bobby Turner and Anthony Lynn and taking as much time as possible with Garoppolo.
In addition to his three-game touchdown streak, McCaffrey became the only player in the Super Bowl era to have at least one offensive touchdown and 30 or more yards passing, rushing and receiving in a game.
McCaffrey’s performance also got the Niners imagining what happens when players like Samuel and other perimeter players Jauan Jennings recover from a hamstring injury.
“With all these skill positions (talents), there’s really no cap,” Kittle said. “We should go there, we should get a lot of points.”