Last Thursday, the San Francisco 49ers made some big headlines by announcing a trade for Carolina running back Christian McCaffrey, one of the best dual-threat backs in the game.
The move was made with every intention of making this a Super Bowl or bust season for the 49ers, but does this get them over the hump after losing the NFC Championship Game last year?
Normally, trading a second, third, and fourth-round pick in the draft (plus a fifth in 2024) for a running back would not be advisable, but better for the 49ers to try it than for the Rams or Bills to snatch up CMC first.
We look at McCaffrey’s fit in San Francisco, and where the 49ers stand in the NFC races for both the Super Bowl and winning the NFC West for the first time since 2019.
Did Kyle Shanahan Really Need McCaffrey?
If your offense cannot accommodate McCaffrey’s skillset, then you do not belong in the NFL coaching offense. But there is something ironic about an offense coached by Shanahan spending premium resources on a big-name running back.
49ers coach Kyle Shanahan’s father was Mike Shanahan, who popularized the zone-blocking scheme in Denver that led to great rushing and offensive success in the 1990s and early 2000s. It is true that the system looked even better when the running back was uniquely talented, such as Terrell Davis (Hall of Famer and MVP) or Clinton Portis.
But this system also made 1,000-yard rushers out of Mike Anderson, Olandis Gary, Reuben Droughns, and Tatum Bell.
The thought was you could stick any back off the street in this system and he would produce big numbers. With Kyle trying to follow in his father’s footsteps and run a similar offense, he was his father’s offensive coordinator in Washington when sixth-round rookie Alfred Morris rushed for 1,613 yards in 2012. The system lived on.
The Shanahan System in San Francisco
Since becoming the San Francisco head coach in 2017, Shanahan has produced more mediocre results at the running back position, but health has been a big problem for his rosters.
But in 2019, he used a committee approach to finish No. 2 in rushing yards and first with 23 rushing touchdowns.
In the 2019 NFC Championship Game, little-known back Raheem Mostert rushed for 220 yards and four touchdowns in a 37-20 battering of the Packers, the crowning achievement in Shanahan’s career so far, and the type of win that says his system can indeed make a star out of any back.
But in 2020, injuries limited Mostert to just eight games, and the 49ers ended up starting four different backs during an injury-plagued season for the team coming off its Super Bowl loss.
In 2021, sixth-round rookie Elijah Mitchell had a good run with five 100-yard rushing games in 11 appearances, but a series of injuries had him in and out of the lineup.
He did not run great in the postseason either, averaging just 3.07 yards per carry. The team also added a wrinkle in 2021 with lining up strong wide receiver Deebo Samuel in the backfield and letting him produce in the run game. Samuel had 59 carries for 365 yards and eight touchdowns in 2021.
Mitchell was supposed to be the lead back in 2022, but an ankle injury knocked him out after six carries in Week 1. He can return later this season, but he may not be 100% this year.
The New Addition
Jeff Wilson was the next man up, and in the next four games after the Mitchell injury, he averaged 88.3 rushing yards per game. But after losing a fumble for a touchdown in a loss to Atlanta, the team decided to make the bold move for McCaffrey last week.
McCaffrey only received the playbook on his plane flight to San Francisco, but in limited action, he looked impressive against the Chiefs. He made 10-yard gains look easy on multiple occasions, and finished the game with 10 touches for 62 yards.
But the 49ers lost 44-23 as the defense was absolutely shredded by Patrick Mahomes and company. Fortunately, the 49ers may not have to see the Chiefs again this season unless there is a Super Bowl rematch from three years ago.
Where the 49ers Stand for Super Bowl LVII
How Is the Rest of the NFC Doing?
How does that work? Well, the McCaffrey trade helps some, but this may say more about the state of the NFC. Philadelphia is 6-0 but not any scarier than what the 49ers were in 2019, and no one really believes the Giants (6-1) or Vikings (5-1) are great teams yet.
The decline of the Buccaneers and Packers to 3-4 records is also a huge deal. It is looking like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers need to make alternate plans about what to do with their Sundays next year.
Then there is the case of the Los Angeles Rams, the defending champions, who are only 3-3 and have not looked impressive this season. They also have not done well against Shanahan’s 49ers, losing seven of the last eight meetings.
San Francisco’s Roster
When you take into account the 49ers just getting two of their best players back from injury, pass rusher Nick Bosa and left tackle Trent Williams, and adding McCaffrey to an offense with Samuel, George Kittle, and Brandon Aiyuk, then you are looking at one of the best rosters in the NFL for a team that has been in two of the last three NFC Championship Games.
But it is hard to say McCaffrey is the final missing piece that will get this team over the hump, especially if it has to play the Chiefs again in the Super Bowl. Fortunately, the 49ers would only have to beat one of the Bills or Chiefs in Super Bowl LVII, but they will be an underdog in either contest.
There is still the issue of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and his mental lapses where he throws it to the wrong team in an inexplicable fashion. There are also questions about if he is the right quarterback to get the most out of McCaffrey as a receiver and dump-off option.
But with McCaffrey likely taking over lead-back duties this week or next, he is going to make this offense a little better than if it had Wilson or Mitchell as the lead-back.
Winning the NFC West
In a weird way, keeping McCaffrey in town may be the best thing for the 49ers in 2023 and the Trey Lance era, assuming that is going to happen. That might be an offense where he can excel the most in with a mobile quarterback like how he played with Cam Newton in Carolina.
McCaffrey has his own durability concerns too, but there is a legit argument that he would help Lance a lot more than he would help Garoppolo this year, even if the 49ers are framing this as a win-the-Super-Bowl-now trade.
But where McCaffrey should have realistic value this year is in making sure the 49ers win the NFC West.
Currently, the 49ers are the favorites at Bovada to win the NFC West. The 49ers are +125, the Rams are +170, the Seahawks are +500 despite currently leading with a 4-3 record, and Arizona is +750 at 3-4.
How Other Teams Affect the 49ers’ Chances
With the Rams so fond of trading draft picks for veterans, maybe getting McCaffrey before they could, was a big win for the 49ers. We know the Rams are disappointed with Cam Akers and their running game, though the offensive line has a lot to do with that.
But with people still not believing in the Seahawks with Geno Smith, this becomes a critical part of the year for the 49ers. With a win on Sunday, the 49ers can complete a sweep of the Rams and take a 4-4 record into a needed bye.
With the way the Chargers, Cardinals, Saints, Dolphins, and Buccaneers are struggling, San Francisco can go on a big run here leading up to that Seattle rematch in Week 15 on a Thursday night. The 49ers already held the Geno Smith-led offense scoreless in Week 2 in a 27-7 win. The only Seattle score was a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown.
The 49ers also finish with three very winnable games against the Commanders, Raiders, and Cardinals. It is more than possible the 49ers are favored in each of their next 10 games.
Best 49ers Bet in Week 8
In theory, a Shanahan offense should never need a McCaffrey to work, but there is no denying it could work even better with a real talent like that rather than Mitchell or Wilson.
Having said that, the 49ers are still going to be at a quarterback disadvantage when they go up against the likes of Jalen Hurts in a potential NFC Championship Game or in a Super Bowl against Josh Allen or Patrick Mahomes. Injuries have also taken some of the shine off this defense, which is not a historic unit after all.
But with McCaffrey taking over as lead back, the head-to-head ownage of Sean McVay’s Rams, and the upcoming schedule softening up, the best bet you can make on the 49ers right now is that they will win the NFC West this year.
As for going any farther in the playoffs than they have under Shanahan, well, let’s see if McCaffrey is his missing piece to not blowing a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter. Ride him to glory the way his dad rode Terrell Davis in Denver.
NFL Pick: 49ers to Win NFC West (+125) at Bovada
*The line and/or odds on picks in this article might have moved since the content was commissioned. For updated line movements, visit BMR’s free betting odds product.