Per usual, star running back Christian McCaffrey was the highlight of the day, scoring a career-high four touchdowns while accounting for 177 yards from scrimmage in a monster game that has begun to firmly place him in the Most Valuable Player conversation.
Currently, McCaffrey is listed with the seventh-best odds of any player to win the MVP award, ranking slightly ahead of signal-caller Brock Purdy, and being the lone non-quarterback in the Top 12 to earn consideration for the most heralded award in football.
However, there has been a long discussion about preserving McCaffrey through the full season, as the running back played just 10 total games in 2020 and 2021 before seeing a full year of action in 2022 between the 49ers and the Panthers.
The RB snap splits
Just last week, head coach Kyle Shanahan acknowledged the desire to monitor McCaffrey’s snaps, pointing to the running back’s 62 percent (51/83) snap share in Week 3 as around what the team expected.
“Yeah, I thought the week before just never getting [RB] Elijah [Mitchell] in was kind of an anomaly for us. But [McCaffrey’s usage in Week 3] I think was a little more what we expect, but each game’s going to be different,” Shanahan said after Week 3. “But I was happy how yesterday went, and I thought both of them played well. I thought JP [RB Jordan Mason] did an awesome job when he came in and finished it there, allowing us to stay on the field.”
But, the 49ers faced another tough decision in Week 3, as Mitchell was ruled out due to an injury, leading to McCaffrey earning 85 percent of the offensive snaps.
Now, the actual number was less than in Week 3, as the 49ers only had 55 offensive snaps, of which McCaffrey played 47, but, nonetheless, the snap share was still significant.
What did Shanahan think about the running back split in Week 3, with Jordan Mason serving as the primary backup to McCaffrey with Mitchell injured?
“Yeah, [the divide of snaps] is always hard. We did it for a couple drives, but we still put [McCaffrey] back in on third-down,” Shanahan said after the Week 4 win. “I don’t even know the numbers here, but I want to say he had 30-something plays, 40? All right, you guys probably know I haven’t got to that yet. Yeah, it was only 55 plays in the game, which was smaller.
“And yes, we would love to have him a little bit more rest, but he is extremely tough to take out.”
Shanahan believes that his running back has gotten even better year to year, adapting himself within the offense with a full offseason with the 49ers.
“It’s tough to say because I thought he was so good last year at it too, but I do think he’s gotten better,” Shanahan said. “I think he just understands it more as a whole, not that he didn’t last year, but I think this stuff comes pretty natural to Christian.”
“But he also works at it harder than any player I’ve been around, so he doesn’t just try to figure out what he’s supposed to do. He understands the package of everybody and that’s why he picks things up fast and that’s why he has been pretty interchangeable at all the spots we put him at.”
When it comes to preserving McCaffrey, the solution is not as easy as you'd think.
While the 49ers have a talented room of running backs, arguably the best in the NFL, McCaffrey is just different. That’s the easiest way to put it.
The running back is not only an explosive machine on the ground, but his dual-threat ability provides so much for the 49ers through the air, both when serving as a decoy and a reliable checkdown.
Just like the other weapons that San Francisco has, McCaffrey requires significant attention in the passing game, creating more favorable matchups across the board and more overall fluidity for the offense.
Most importantly, the addition of McCaffrey has jumpstarted the 49ers’ offense, dating back to his arrival last season, to the elite ranks, and has accelerated the growth of quarterback Brock Purdy.
It’s certainly important to provide McCaffrey a breather and preserve him for the most important chase, a Super Bowl, but I can understand head coach Kyle Shanahan’s reluctance to take him off the field, given the innate value that McCaffrey provides to the offense, regardless of whether he touches the football or not.
But, if the 49ers offense can keep clicking at the rate they have thus far, there’ll be enough opportunities to comfortably sideline McCaffrey at the end of games in order to preserve his health.