SANTA CLARA — Christian McCaffrey has been on the 49ers 19 days shy of a calendar year and it’s hard to remember life without him.
McCaffrey has done some remarkable things since he arrived from the Carolina Panthers last Oct. 20 in exchange for four draft picks, but he broke new ground in Sunday’s 35-16 win over the Arizona Cardinals at Levi’s Stadium.
“It was a good day,” McCaffrey said.
Good as in 106 yards on 20 carries and touchdowns runs of 1, 18 and 2 yards. Good as in seven receptions for 71 yards and a 6-yard touchdown grab from Brock Purdy. Good as in 11 first downs. McCaffrey has scored a touchdown in 13 straight games, but never more than two.
Had coach Kyle Shanahan been paying attention, McCaffrey could have joined Jerry Rice in 1990 and Ricky Watters in 1993 in the playoffs with five touchdowns. Instead, Purdy finished off the scoring for the 49ers with a 1-yard sneak.
“That would have been nice,” McCaffrey said as a smile split his face. “But he’s got a lot going on and that’s the last of anyone’s worries. As long as we scored I was happy.”
The 27 touches and 176 yards of offense were season highs and were needed since Deebo Samuel was playing with a sore knee and Elijah Mitchell was out with a knee injury.
“There was space out there,” Shanahan said. “With Elijah down and Deebo not practicing, it gave him more opportunities.”
As for not getting McCaffrey touchdown No. 5, Shanahan said, “I never know that type of stuff. Now I feel kind of bad. We should have tried. He would have got five if we gave him a chance.”
And to think when McCaffrey arrived, Shanahan and general manager John Lynch were fielding questions about the wisdom of risking second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-round draft picks on a running back who had some injury issues in Carolina.
It’s not like teams make deals for running backs anymore, and Shanahan had long had success with backs such as Matt Breida, Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson Jr. and Tevin Coleman, who were productive if not marquee names.
But what the 49ers have learned in the last 346 days is that McCaffrey is so much more than just a running back. His level of focus and dedication has wowed teammates who knew he was good but had no idea what they were truly getting.
“I didn’t (know). I ain’t going to lie,” left tackle Trent Williams said. “How can you be that talented lining up as a wide receiver or line up in the I formation and continue to gash defenses? He’s a special player. He really is.”
“You don’t get a true appreciation until you see it in person,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “You see it in practice every day and how much it means to him and how much effort he puts in during the week to have these days.”
McCaffrey had four rushes and three receptions on the 49ers’ opening drive for a touchdown, scoring from the 1. Touchdown No. 2 came on a lateral from Purdy in which he got a lead block from Juszczyk and then hurdled Cardinals corner Kei’Trel Clark, scoring from 18 yards out.
CHRISTIAN MCCAFFREY WITH THE HURDLE AND THE 49ERS TOUCHDOWN 😱pic.twitter.com/RRArGLaEuT
— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPoints) October 1, 2023
“I was fired up about that,” Juszczuk said. “It was a great move because we saw guys were going low all week and it was a great job to anticipate and go over the top.”
For his part, McCaffrey said he didn’t plan to hurdle as much as he did it on feel.
“I think it’s pretty instinctual,” McCaffrey said. “That’s why I love football. You can go out there and be completely free. You’ve got an assignment to do, but after that it’s let it flow and play with instincts.”
It’s just four games into the season, but it’s fair to wonder whether McCaffrey could be the first running back to win the league’s Most Valuable Player Award since Adrian Peterson of Minnesota in 2012.
As good as Purdy has been, and he was 20 of 21 for 285 yards and a touchdown against Arizona, the 49ers’ offense revolves around McCaffrey. He leads the NFL with 459 yards rushing, which projects to 1,951 yards over the course of a 17-game season. The last 49ers back to lead the NFL in rushing was Hall of Famer Joe Perry, who won it both in 1953 and 1954.
One of only three backs to have 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season along former 49er Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk, McCaffrey had just 11 catches for 70 yards coming in before breaking loose Sunday.
“In this offense there are so many guys that are dynamic with the ball, so the first and second read are typically open,” McCaffrey said. “Some days it works works out that way, some days it doesn’t.”
When McCaffrey got to the 49ers last season, his first order of business was to hit up Purdy, then the backup quarterback, for some overtime sessions so he could get a crash course on the system.
“We’d go out on the field, he and I and walk through plays and he was all focused in,” Purdy said. “I was like, `Is this an act? Or is he like being for real?’ Then we’d sit at a table the night before the game and he’s focused the same way. And he’s the same guy today. His preparation, focus and mindset are at another level.”
Shanahan said as with all trades, there was doubt the McCaffrey trade could be consummated.
“It was real close,” Shanahan said. “You know he’s that good of a player, just watching him. When you’re around the person, you realize how much better he is with his intangibles and his makeup and how he prepares. He’s as much of a professional as I’ve been around.”
Nick Bosa, who won the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award last season, received the award at NFL Honors Night with McCaffrey sitting a row in front of him and being the first to say congratulations.
“He just changes everything,” Bosa said in reference to a potential MVP for McCaffrey. “Hopefully (this year) I’m sitting in front of him and congratulating him.”
One problem — if Bosa and McCaffrey attend Honors Night, it means the 49ers aren’t in the Super Bowl the following day.
Go ahead and assume McCaffrey will do everything in his power to miss it.