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Winning changes everything: Christian McCaffrey escaped constant rebuilds with trade to 49ers

McCaffrey’s usage is still extremely high, but he’s ending up on the winning side more often in San Francisco.

Cincinnati Bengals v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Loren Elliott/Getty Images

On Oct. 20, 2022, during a Thursday Night Football game between the New Orleans Saints and the Arizona Cardinals, an announcement came just before the half: The Carolina Panthers had traded Christian McCaffrey to the San Francisco 49ers.

The trade certainly took steam out of one of the more watchable games on Thursday night that year with the Saints losing to the Cardinals 42-34. The news was less about the winner and more of this massive trade.

Saying the trade had a mixed reaction might be stretching it. “Questions” may have been better. The 49ers already did not have a first-round pick due to their trade up for Trey Lance two seasons earlier. The McCaffrey trade cost them their second, a third, and a fourth-round pick in the 2023 NFL draft. Combined with lingering effects of the Trey Lance trade, the 49ers would not be picking their draft class in 2023 until the third round.

The gamble was going to need to not only work in 2022 but be beneficial from a salary cap standpoint to justify giving more of the 49ers’ future away. Especially for a player who not only had a large salary but had been worked to the nub with his current team—how much juice he had left was a concern.

Christian Jackson McCaffrey

A standout at Stanford, Christian McCaffrey was already a hot name coming into the 2017 NFL Draft. Already well known for his speed and power as a running back, McCaffrey went so far as to not conduct a single drill at his pro day at running back, instead displaying his abilities as a pass catcher and wide receiver.

The Carolina Panthers drafted him eighth overall. McCaffrey’s skill set went well with Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s power running ability. His rookie season was the only time he would be on the roster of a Panthers' playoff team. It was also, despite his future near-overusage, be the only time he’d see a .500 record on the Panthers.

In 2018, McCaffrey was fully entrenched as the starter and in 2019 he became the third player in history to have 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in the same season.

The issue was that the Panthers offense began deteriorating just as McCaffrey was establishing himself. Newton battled injured seasons and eventually left the Panthers on two different occasions. The Panthers tried to find suitable replacements and failed. Wide receivers couldn’t get consistency while reliable weapons like tight end Greg Olsen were released.

There were multiple games, back-to-back games, some with shortened weeks, where McCaffrey would be on the field for 100 percent of the snaps just because he was the only piece the Panthers could count on.

In his 2017 rookie season, McCaffrey played 69.9 percent of all offensive snaps. That number jumped to above 90 percent of total offensive snaps in both 2018 and 2019.

By 2020, Christian McCaffrey was the Panthers' offense as quarterbacks were just simply unable to lighten the load. McCaffrey played as much as injuries would allow, and his extensive usage opened the door to wear and tear.

The offense went through McCaffrey and McCaffrey fought to be on the field as a result. The Panthers lost several close games and with the departure of Cam Newton, had even more difficulty with stability at the quarterback position.

Regardless, McCaffrey felt he’d be a Panther forever.

A trade wasn’t even on McCaffrey’s mind. It wasn’t on the Panthers’ either. General manager Scott Fitterer said at the start of 2022 there were no intentions to trade their star running back. These sentiments were reflected to McCaffrey privately as well; Fitterer told McCaffrey he would “absolutely not” be traded. The emotional attachment, despite losing, could possibly have been the one thing that kept McCaffrey’s switch from never turning off. Despite the Panthers looking like they’d improve each year, they’d stumble along and never make it to .500.

After six games in 2022, including a 37-15 beat-down at the hands of the very team he’d be traded to, McCaffrey was traded to the 49ers.

For McCaffrey, it brought mixed emotions. He felt as if the Panthers thought they were better without him and a few draft picks richer. There was deception after publicly, and privately, they said they would not trade him, especially when the common fan saw how much he was used in the backfield. McCaffrey would later say the trade was the best thing that ever happened to him.

One thing was certain: He was going to a 49ers team where he’d be fed to the wolves almost instantly. Not many people would be gracious of the situation they were plunged into.

Diamonds get roughed

On the surface, the 49ers’ trade for McCaffrey may have appeared almost unnecessary. 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan had managed to get the running back position to almost a plug-and-play spot in his offense. He managed to take Matt Breida, an undrafted free agent from Georgia Southern, and set him up to flourish.

After Breida was Raheem Mostert, who slowly transitioned from a special teams gunner into one of the fastest running backs—and players—in the league. Mostert’s crowning moment with Shanahan was a 220-yard, four-touchdown display in the NFC Championship game. Following Mostert was Elijah Mitchell, who in his rookie year had 963 yards. There also was Jeff Wilson Jr., a running back who sealed a crucial victory for the 49ers in 2019 against the Cardinals and had great value as a change-of-pace back.

These running backs had something in common besides decent production: They couldn’t stay on the field. Breida fought injuries in the 2018 season and split playing time with Mostert in 2019. Mostert went to injured reserve in 2020, and played just one game in 2021; the first game of the season and Mostert’s last as a 49er.

Mitchell, due to his strong performance during Mostert’s injury the year before, was seen as the starter in 2022, but he was placed on injured reserve after an MCL sprain in Week 1 and would not return until November.

Making matters worse, while Shanahan would find gems, he’d also draft numerous busts who either would be traded or released. Without Mitchell, Shanahan had rookies Tyrion Davis-Price and Jordan Mason backing up Jeff Wilson Jr. The 49ers also had to call up Tevin Coleman from the practice squad just because the pickings were slim. While not world-beating, the room was expected to weather the storm until Mitchell could come back from injury, assuming the 49ers made the playoffs.

That assumption was put into jeopardy early in the season.

The 49ers lost their game opener to the Chicago Bears, and then lost their starting quarterback, Trey Lance, in their second game to the Seattle Seahawks. The 49ers went on to drop an ugly game to the Denver Broncos. When they played the Atlanta Falcons in Week 6, they lost due to mental errors; dropped passes, penalties and fumbles — things Christian McCaffrey wouldn’t fix.

Upon processing the trade, the 49ers said McCaffrey would have a package of plays and be in the starting lineup for their matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs. There was no doubt the running back position was improved, but given Shanahan’s tendency to create stars out of nothing, the question was a matter of diminishing returns. Was McCaffrey that much of an improvement?

Striking Gold

McCaffrey’s trade announcement came and the 49ers said he’d be a part of the lineup against the Chiefs. His first carry, a pitch from Jimmy Garoppolo, went for 10 yards. Despite the promise McCaffrey showed, the 49ers were outmatched against the Chiefs and Garoppolo was pulled in the fourth quarter for rookie Brock Purdy once the game got out of hand.

The loss put the 49ers at 3-4. The following week, McCaffrey debuted in full for the 49ers. He rushed for a touchdown, caught a touchdown pass, and threw a touchdown pass of his own. The 49ers beat the Rams 31-14.

The 49ers would not lose another regular season game for the remainder of the 2022 season.

The addition of McCaffrey not only revived a running back room that had been decimated by Mitchell’s injury, it became more dynamic thanks to McCaffrey’s abilities. With Mitchell’s return in November and the rise of Jordan Mason in his absence, the 49ers had a strong three-headed beast should they ever need it.

Mitchells return was also met with another injury pushing this three headed beast’s appearance into the playoffs and making McCaffrey’s trade much more crucial.

This also, on paper, meant McCaffrey finally could eventually get a break and not be depended on for 100 percent of his team's snaps. It’s a theory that really hasn’t been proven as to this day, he is still on the field a majority of plays.

In 2023, McCaffrey is still taking the lion’s share of snaps, averaging 80 percent after Week 8. The 49ers have been able to supplant his physicality with other weapons like Brandon Aiyuk, capable of taking the load off, or when needed, to step in when a nagging injury hits. With Brock Purdy learning the pro game, McCaffrey helped take the burden of the offense off the rookie by finding holes and making the pass game easier for the quarterback.

McCaffrey’s usage hasn’t changed much. The 49ers have used him far more than many anticipated. In 2022, the year of his trade, his massive usage went into a playoff push where he was asked to play quarterback for Brock Purdy, who injured his elbow early in the game.

In 2023, the 49ers are 5-3 and working out some issues of a losing streak, but are also seen as a team with the talent to make a deep run in the post season. McCaffrey has been called no longer just the offense or the only talented person on a team, but a cheat code. Someone whose abilities contribute to the wins and a possible Super Bowl title rather than keeping the ship afloat as a team fails at rebuilding. McCaffrey is just too important and valuable to give 50% of the snaps to. He’s also too good to be on a team that can’t get to .500 consistently.

McCaffrey’s usage hasn’t changed. Maybe he will be worn to the nub, but in this situation, as they say, winning changes everything.