When the San Francisco 49ers traded away four draft picks – a 2023 second-round pick, a 2023 third-round pick, a 2023 fourth-round pick, and a 2024 fifth-round pick – to acquire Christian McCaffrey from the Carolina Panthers last fall, it seemingly supercharged Kyle Shanahan’s offense.
The team won all of their games down the stretch, McCaffrey finished out the season with 1,880 all-purpose yards – 1,210 of those yards as a member of the 49ers alone – and the second-generation NFL star became the first player in franchise history to rush, throw, and catch a touchdown in the same game.
And yet, in the opinion of Shanahan, having McCaffrey in his offense allows him to be less creative with his play calling, not more so, as he explained to reporters at the Dwight Clark Legacy Series.
“It makes it easier. It calms your mind a little bit,” Shanahan said. “You don’t have to make as much stuff up. Everyone wants to be like, ‘Oh, you got him now. How creative are you going to be?’ It’s like, ‘You don’t have to be as creative.’ He can beat that guy. We don’t have to help him.
“The defense has got to help the guy guarding him. That’s where it gets cool. And that’s what I love so much about Christian … Christian is so different. We have a lot of real talented players on our team, especially our five eligibles. Christian is just so consistent.
“And when you match up his talent, with his preparation, with his mind, with the position he plays and who guards him, I don’t care what the leverage is that linebacker is going to play, Christian is going to beat him, and it’s consistently.”
Unlike in college football, where coaches can scheme open their offensive players with relative ease, NFL play-callers have a much harder time creating wide-open plays for their players; everyone on the field is a professional, and the coverages are far more sophisticated than those run by college defenses.
Having a player like McCaffrey, who can create mismatches on his own without special design calls from Shanahan, certainly makes life easier for the offensive play-caller, and can actually open up plays for his teammates, too.
Christian McCaffrey Opens up the 49ers Offense
Discussing McCaffrey’s offensive impact further, Shanahan noted how the do-it-all offensive weapon can open up single coverage for the 49ers’ other “four eligibles” on any given play.
“And when you have someone who can do that consistently, and the defense respects that, they’re not going to allow that linebacker to play leverage in a certain way without help on the other leverage,” Shanahan added. “And so when you have a guy like that, whether he breaks in or out, it takes two, which now means [TE George] Kittle versus a strong safety. When that safety plays outside leverage, and a guy breaks in, there’s no one there to help anymore.
“When a guy plays outside leverage on [WR] Deebo [Samuel], and Deebo just runs in, where if we get the ball in Deebo’s hand, he’s got a chance to be gone. Well, usually, the linebacker can help there [against] anyone who breaks in, and then we got to go to someone else late. Well, now they’re just going to Christian because if they don’t, he’s that consistent.”
After averaging just 45.5 yards per game before McCaffrey’s addition, Kittle specifically saw his production take a step forward while playing alongside number 23, averaging 53 yards per game while catching all 11 of his touchdowns from October 23rd onward. Though it may seem counterproductive, Shanahan’s assertion is statistically provable, as there isn’t a finite amount of offense allowed in any given game.
Christian McCaffrey Is a Stress-Reliever for Kyle Shanahan
In the NFL, forcing opposing defenses to cover from sideline to sideline is one of the best ways to stress a defense and create cracks in coverage from which a quarterback can exploit. Having a player like McCaffrey, Shanahan feels, who can run between the tackles, run outside, and contribute both vertically and horizontally as a pass-catcher is instrumental in creating extra space and ultimately makes his life a whole lot easier.
“And it just spaces everything out,” Shanahan explained. “And to me, Christian, out of any of those players, because of the position he plays and because of everything else stacked with it, he really makes it easier, in my opinion, to get the ball to Kittle, to get it to Deebo, to get it to [WR Brandon] Aiyuk, to get it to [WR] Jauan [Jennings].”
“And as a play caller, I’m not as stressed because you just let it happen. And I don’t care what they do; you guys pick your poison. Go ahead, double him. Those other dudes are pretty good.”
For a head coach like Shanahan who also calls plays, gamedays surely can be stressful. Having a player like McCaffrey certainly makes his day just a little bit easier.