If 49ers are taking the long view, they need Christian McCaffrey at something close to full strength in November and beyond
SANTA CLARA — Take it from someone who knows nothing about athletic medicine or what is wrong with Christian McCaffrey:
If the 49ers truly value the end game in 2023, they should seriously consider having McCaffrey sit out Monday Night Football against the Minnesota Vikings.
There is no need for them to make any announcements or reveal their intentions. It’s better to keep the possibility of McCaffrey playing as long as possible before kickoff for what Kyle Shanahan and the other NFL coaches refer to as a “competitive advantage.”
McCaffrey left a 19-17 loss to Cleveland with a “oblique/rib” injury after 36 snaps. They had an MRI but did not release the results, with ESPN’s Adam Schefter reporting that a long-term injury was avoided and that playing on Monday was not out of the question.
In public, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan will defer to the medical staff. It will be difficult to bench the NFL’s most valuable all-purpose running back if McCaffrey is cleared and can tolerate the pain.
We know enough about McCaffrey to believe that he’ll be desperate to play because that’s how he’s wired. We know the 49ers have always prided themselves on taking things week by week, with the next game on the schedule taking precedence over anything else. We all know McCaffrey leads the NFL in rushing yards with 553 and has scored touchdowns in 15 straight games.
Even if the 49ers lose their Week 7 game against the Vikings, their goal of playing (and winning) Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas remains unaffected.
Lose your offensive centerpiece for an extended period of time or have him play at a reduced capacity due to injuries and a steady stream of legal and illegal hits from teams that have McCaffrey targeted as the guy most likely to beat them if you want to see a season go sideways.
McCaffrey has begun to show signs of wear and tear in the last two games. Take away a 27-yard run on his first carry against Cleveland (which resulted in a personal foul), and he had 16 yards on 10 carries. This came after he carried the ball 19 times for 51 yards against Dallas. Aside from the one burst, that’s 29 carries for 61 yards.
And, while Dallas won easily, McCaffrey was hit hard and frequently. On his first carry in that one, he was also the victim of an aggressive facemask for a personal foul.
McCaffrey was on pace for 404 rushing and receiving touches entering the Cleveland game, one more than he had in 2019 with Carolina, when he joined Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk as the only backs in NFL history to have 1,000-1,000 seasons.
The Panthers finished 5-11 that season and lacked the playmakers that surround McCaffrey with the 49ers.
Giving McCaffrey a one-week break to recover would only be beneficial in the long run. And if McCaffrey is hurting more than he’s letting on, the 49ers have a bye in Week 8 before facing Cincinnati. That would be a three-week break to get McCaffrey back in shape for November, December, and beyond.
Deebo Samuel, assuming his shoulder is fine (he’s listed as day-to-day), was a similarly versatile weapon in 2021 and could temporarily return to his “wide back” role. Elijah Mitchell is back in action and could be one of the NFL’s most productive runners if he stays healthy. Jordan Mason is vying for Mitchell’s backup spot, while Ty Davis-Price remains available.
In the passing game, there’s also George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk, and Jauan Jennings, giving Shanahan plenty of options to spread the ball around through quarterback Brock Purdy if McCaffrey is sidelined.
Friday marks the one-year anniversary of the trade that brought McCaffrey to the 49ers. McCaffrey has 309 carries for 1,537 yards and 15 touchdowns rushing and 87 receptions for 702 yards and eight scores in 20 regular-season and playoff games (including a minor role in his debut).
That’s a lot of work, and one of the most difficult aspects of coaching is knowing when to push forward. Trent Williams, the left tackle, missed just two snaps against Cleveland due to a right ankle injury, and Shanahan discussed the mental gymnastics that go into keeping an injured player on the field on Monday.
“That’s always the toughest thing because you never want to put someone at a huge jeopardy to make it worse,” he said.
He used the phrase “huge jeopardy” rather than “in jeopardy.” Playing while injured and doing what it takes to play in terms of pain management is a part of the NFL that no one wants to talk about, but it happens all the time.
Before McCaffrey arrived, the 49ers had a good enough offense to reach the Super Bowl in 2019 and then come within a game of it two years later. The additional benefit of doing without McCaffrey now would be bringing in those other players and making the attack more balanced.
And perhaps a slightly reduced workload for McCaffery when he returns in the coming weeks to help ensure a strong finish leading into the playoffs and beyond.