A healthy Christian McCaffrey is a joy to watch. He’s also a difference-maker. We’ve seen an uptick in receiving production for McCaffrey during the two previous games, as he’s had six receptions in each. And this isn’t your typical screen pass to a running back out of the backfield. McCaffrey is lined up as a slot receiver, out wide, as a tight end, you name it.
But the concern is how much volume is too much? Six receptions and 16 carries in a game isn’t a big deal. The problem is when a handful of those come when the game is out of hand.
If you’re rooting for the player, it was cool to watch Kyle Shanahan do any and everything to get McCaffrey the touchdown record last Sunday. You would have thought the Niners were trailing the way the offense was competing to get No. 23 into the end zone.
On Wednesday in the locker room, McCaffrey said, “it means a lot to me for them to keep me in at the end of the game there and try to give me that record.”
What you don’t want is your star running back to have to run in between the tackles and take unnecessary hits in a 31-point game.
Brian Baldinger appears weekly on 95.7 The Game’s “The Morning Roast show.” Baldy is a bit leery of McCaffrey’s volume and history is on his side: “Well, if you just said 20 carries a game, I mean the 49ers want to play 20 games this year. That’s 400 touches. He did that once in Carolina, and he was on the shelf for the next two years. On and off the shelf. It’s just too much.”
If his volume continues at its current pace, McCaffrey should land in the neighborhood of 360 touches, which would be the highest mark since 2019 for McCaffrey. It’s also worth noting that McCaffrey only played 69 and 125 snaps in 2020 and 2021. He currently has 153 rushing attempts. He finished last season with 284.
Baldinger believes the 49ers need to do a better job of getting the other running backs on the roster involved: “You look at the wear and tear that those guys take and the way that he runs between the tackles. I just think you better get, whether it’s Mitchell or Mason or somebody, touches, and get them some rhythm. I think you got to preserve him to a degree, especially if it’s a runaway game. You gotta find ways to get him off the field.”
Last Sunday was a one-off example and even Jaguars head coach Doug Pederson understood what the 49ers were trying to accomplish.
But this Sunday is a different story. The 49ers will play a defense in back-to-back weeks that are in the top seven in rushing DVOA. We all know how dominant of a player Vita Vea can be. Equally as important is the 49ers quick turnaround as they play next Thursday.
Sunday’s game against the Buccaneers should be a high-volume game for Elijah Mitchell and Jordan Mason. If the game plan usually calls for McCaffrey to get 20-25 touches, then against Tampa Bay it should be closer to 13-16 with the Seattle game a few days later.
Baldinger referenced recent running backs who have surpassed the 400 carry mark: “He might be able to go 400 carries and be fine and get to the offseason, but not many backs can do it, and I’ve tracked it. I mean, I don’t care if your name was Shaun Alexander or Deuce McCallister. Every single back that went 400 touches literally was washed up the next year.”
It’s a valid concern and something the 49ers coaching staff has to be cognizant of down the stretch. But there also isn’t a play in the playbook offensively where the Niners are better without McCaffrey on the field.