Does Christian McCaffrey change the San Francisco 49ers?
As for McCaffrey in the huddle?
That’s right, not a single, “What do I do here again?” from the do-it-all running back Sunday, a mere nine days after he joined the team. The onetime Stanford star burned the midnight oil as vigorously as he torched the Rams, scoring three touchdowns — rushing, receiving and passing — in a 31-14 blowout.
“Honestly, no questions in the huddle from him which is incredible, the mental capacity to pick that up that quickly,” quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said.
The 49ers traded a truckload of picks to the Carolina Panthers for McCaffrey, outbidding the Rams among other teams for his services. He played 22 snaps against Kansas City a week earlier, then stepped in as the offensive centerpiece Sunday, a particular area of need with Deebo Samuel sidelined with a hamstring injury.
“He was clean today,” Garoppolo said of McCaffrey. “I credit him with all the studying he does, that ain’t easy. I’ve been in that situation before and with the whirlwind that’s going on around you, to focus in on the game plan, it takes a special individual.”
McCaffrey ran for 94 yards, caught eight passes for 55 — including a nine-yard touchdown — and connected with Brandon Aiyuk on a 34-yard scoring pass.
“Both my little brothers are quarterbacks, so I learned a lot from them,” McCaffrey said. “I used to always want to play quarterback, just because it was the best position, but I’ve been a running back since I was 7.”
He did recall some tips from his brothers.
“Gotta get the elbow up,” he said. “Get loose, get the elbow up, and it helps when someone’s wide open as well.”
San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan said the thought of McCaffrey throwing a halfback pass came during red-zone preparations Thursday night.
“I remember me yelling down into the rooms to see if anyone would answer, `Does anyone know if Christian can throw?’ ” Shanahan said. “[Tight end coach] Brian Fleury emailed or sent through text a video of him throwing a 53-yarder a few years ago. When I saw that I felt he could throw and we repped it in practice the next day.”
Indeed, McCaffrey threw a long touchdown pass for the Panthers in 2018 — it was 50 yards, actually — and had two more pass attempts that fell incomplete the following season.
Regardless, the Rams had no answers when it came to stopping him. Curiously, they had faced him in their game two weeks ago, when they beat Carolina in a home game. McCaffrey had 158 all-purpose yards in that game. Was it advantageous for him to face the Rams twice in three weeks?
“Every game is different,” he said with a shrug. “I’m in a whole new offense. For me, I’m just trying to master my craft, and I think there’s so much more left for me to learn and understand. I’m excited to continue to grow and get better with this team.”
That’s the scary part, not just for the Rams — who already have been swept by the 49ers — but the rest of the NFC. San Francisco was coming off back-to-back losses, yet now heads into its off week at 4-4 with all arrows pointing up.
Samuel is going to come back, as is receiver Jauan Jennings, giving Garoppolo a wealth of options. And the 49ers defense is swarming, limiting the Rams to 58 yards of offense in a scoreless second half.
Asked about this particular division rivalry, 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa said: “The intensity always starts off really hot, and it’s just a matter of who’s going to stick with it through the tough times throughout the game.
“Today when we were down, we stuck with it. And they didn’t. And that’s why we won.”
Of McCaffrey, Bosa said: “He plays our style. I think he’s only going to get better and better.”
Whereas his old team is 2-6 and at the bottom of the NFC South, McCaffrey’s new one is in second place in the NFC West behind the 5-3 Seattle Seahawks.
“We’re just going to take this momentum — I honestly hate going on bye right now because it feels like we figured something out,” 49ers tight end George Kittle said.
Kittle, whose team just blew the roof off a SoFi Stadium filled with 49ers fans, made another observation about an offense that has added McCaffrey:
“There is no ceiling.”