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Week 5 Vibe Check: Christian McCaffrey is the best Bay Area athlete since Steph Curry

There’s something Stephortless about this offense

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Ten hours before kickoff last Sunday, I found myself in a packed, sweaty underground concert standing ten feet away from a world-famous house DJ. Dom Dolla is the type of act in this genre that sells out stadiums and headlines music festivals, so the only way you can see him is either in a massive crowd or on YouTube. There I stood, so close to the decks that I could see every beat of sweat dripping from his forehead and into his Modelo.

There’s so much more to notice when you’re seeing any kind of performance live and up-close. You pick up on energy when you’re in the same room as someone. You can feel the crowd feed off the performer and the performer feed off the crowd, and you almost feel like you’re participating rather than just spectating.

Ten hours later, I caught the real headliner of the weekend from the lower section of Levi’s. I’ve seen Christian McCaffrey on TV plenty of times through his time at Stanford and Carolina. But this was the first time I got to see with my own two eyes rather than through the sterilized lens of a broadcast camera.

The last time I felt this way was when I went to Chase Center (and previously Oracle Arena) to see Steph Curry in person.

When the 49ers were at the 20-yard line at the start of the 2nd quarter, I took my phone out because I just knew. The Cardinals just got burned on a couple of passes. The 49ers weren’t so close to the goal line that it felt like an obvious run.

I could just feel it. Kyle had something in mind. It reminded me of being at Warriors games when Steph Curry had that look in his eyes, when he’d pull from 35 feet out and the whole crowd gets so excited because everybody could just breathe his greatness. I started recording and sure enough, Christian McCaffrey scored on a beautiful screen pass.

If you dig into the comparison more, it’ll fall apart on the narrative aspects. Steph was drafted while McCaffrey was traded. Steph changed the game and brought home four championships, McCaffrey has been to the playoffs twice. Point guards are more like quarterbacks while running backs are more like centers — interchangeable unless they do non-positional things (shooting and play-making, receiving and blocking) at an elite level.

The larger point is that the last time anyone on the 49ers was as good at football as Steph Curry is at basketball has been... Jerry Rice. You can also say Montana, Young, Lott. What 49er since then has played at a first-ballot Hall of Fame level? Don’t get me wrong, the past 25 years has seen some fantastic 49ers players - Patrick Willis, Frank Gore, not to mention some of the veterans right now. Those guys were the best in their positions and competed against the rest of the league. CMC has a chance to transcend, competing against the record books.

The more accurate narrative analogue might be KD coming to the Warriors: a league MVP caliber player copy-pasted into a championship-contending roster. All of a sudden, these superstars start playing with the best teammates they ever had, teammates that can actually play on their level.

It’s a reason why KD actually got better at certain skills of basketball during his time at GSW, the same way CMC has talked about how he’s getting better so far during his time with Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers.

Chris Foerster, the 49ers’ run game coordinator and offensive line coach, explained it one way Thursday. The offense, by design, will have these gaping holes. As a running back who wasn’t well versed with the scheme, McCaffrey would want to just run through them. It’s the natural instinct of a tailback. But he had to be taught how those holes are but the first layer of the scheme. He needed to be patient to let the whole thing develop.

Now, McCaffrey understands the purpose of the hole and what comes after it, what it’s setting up and how to manipulate it. And because his mind is trained to harness the small things, the finer details, he has absorbed so much of the purpose and philosophy of the offense.

“He’s so on it,” Foerster said, “and still learning and still wanting to be better. He is just so hard on himself, in a positive way, that he’s always wanting to make sure he gets it exactly right. … And he has made huge strides. As much as a guy as talented as Christian can make, he’s made huge strides this year.” (Marcus Thompson, The Athletic)

Christian McCaffrey is not the mercenary that KD was nor is he the drafted, spent-his-whole-career-most-loyal-star-in-the-league wunderkind that Steph Curry is. He’s something else entirely... a hometown hero of sorts, back at his old stomping grounds.

His Stanford legacy is already Bay Area lore, but if he gets the job done in February, he’ll carve out his own place as a Bay Area immortal and his legend will stand alone. His stardom spins its own orbit, and he has the gravity to reach the same galaxy as Steph, Buster, and the like.

(Brock Purdy interlude, as talking about the 49ers on the internet legally obligates you to talk about the quarterback situation: I think his ceiling in the 49ers-Warriors analogy universe purely-on-the-court-not-off-the-court is Draymond Green. Under-drafted, undersized, completely unfazed older rookie who wins off of extraordinary instincts + IQ + processing abilities, which makes him uniquely suited to facilitate and guide his co-stars into their best selves).

That’s all for another column, but this notion of a star making other players better is an important one. Quarterbacks are seen as the tide that lifts the other boats, but with this offense, there are times where it feels like the running back is the one bringing the best out of his teammates.

The running back is like a coffee grinder in the Kyle Shanahan offense. For context, one of my pandemic hobbies was pour-over coffee. I got started with a cheap 30 dollar coffee grinder from Amazon while I mastered the basics. As I got more into it, all I thought that mattered were the beans. Get better beans, get better at the technique, make better coffee.

Three years of using the UDFA version of a coffee grinder later, it broke one day. I decided to replace it with a 100 dollar grinder. Not everything in life gets you linear returns for how much money you throw in it, but in this case, the returns were exponential. This new grinder was so much better that it made bad beans taste good and good beans reach new levels of deliciousness.

For so long, we’ve seen the 49ers take Amazon Basics running backs and still put together some really great offenses. We’ve always had some of the highest quality ingredients for offensive success, but now with the fancy coffee grinder, we can really see the collective talent on this offense shine through and fully express all of its notes and flavors.

CMC is amazing because he fits in to so many analogies. His sheer greatness makes certain analogies inevitable: Taylor Swift has had a CMC type impact on the NFL’s engagement metrics. The Las Vegas Sphere is having a CMC type impact on the absurdity that is Las Vegas entertainment options. Delivery food apps have had a CMC type impact on hungover Sunday mornings.

The metaphors are endless because CMC is endless. Every time he gets the ball, you feel like good things are happening. Sometimes you have no idea where he’s going, but it turns out he made a hole out of seemingly nothing. Sometimes the team blocking is so good that the whole stadium erupts before the defense even realizes what is happening. Which is made all the more impressive by the fact that Levi’s Stadium turns into the world’s largest paella pan during those 1pm games.

The way Levi’s is built has a CMC type of impact on the sun, making a normal 75 degree day outside the stadium turn into a blistering heat box inside the stadium. If you’re on the sunny side, it felt like Phoenix was actually playing a home game (with an especially impressive Niner fan takeover). It was miserable, and it took a performer as legendary as CMC to get my fellow paella ingredients out of their seats.

The Levi’s afternoon game experience, according to AI

Luckily, kick-off next week is at a pleasant 5:20pm. The sun will set on the South Bay hills right around halftime, and by the time the game ends, the stars will be out to guide the Cowboys team plane back to the Star with a fresh new L.

As we turn the page to Dallas, I’m relieved that there’s an emotional element this week. All of last week, I was worried that we were in for a trap game. Thankfully, we got the W with minimal injuries, plenty of developmental moments for the younger players, and more meshing for the offensive line. The vibe right now is as good as you can ask for, and now the heightened emotions of a rivalry week can keep the focus sharp and the fire going.

The vibe has been building on itself since the season began in Pittsburgh. The vibe has been stacking days, and now weeks have turned into months as we enter October. We’ve got a long way to go, but we’ve gone fast and far up to this point.

There might not be any Taylor Swift appearances on Sunday Night Football this week, but we get to see another kind of star take the stage. Try to get as close as you can… you might never see a show like this again.