Christian McCaffrey Doesn’t Fit The Mold Of A Typical Shanahan Running Back

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The Shanahan Family has made a great living on turning low-round draft picks into massive payoffs.

On Wednesday, as Mike Shanahan talked about Christian McCaffrey, it was easy to tell that his opinion was decidedly different about what he thought getting a great player would be worth.

“He can run, catch, block. He does everything,” in a tone that was borderline gushing as Shanahan broke away from practicing his putting stroke. “You get a player like that, he can change so much.”

In 2019, Christian McCaffery became the second RB in NFL history to Rush for 1,000 yards and have 1,000 yards receiving. (David T. Foster III/Charlotte Observer/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Given that enthusiasm from the normally measured Shanahan, it should be no surprise that this son Kyle’s San Francisco 49ers dealt a second, third and fourth round pick in 2023 and a fifth rounder in 2024 to Carolina for McCaffrey on Thursday night.

That’s a higher price than the Shanahans have ever paid for a running back at any time in their more than 20 years combined as head coaches. It also leaves the 49ers without any of their first four picks in the 2023 draft. Then again, when you have been so close to winning a Super Bowl in two of the past three years, price is not as much of an object.

Christian McCaffrey Delivers What The 49er’s Need

What a player like McCaffrey can do is relieve much of the burden on quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. That is exactly what the 49ers need to do to break out of the offensive malaise they are in. That malaise has led San Francisco to a 3-3 record so far despite having perhaps the best defense in the NFL.

Yes, the 49ers could have waited for the running game to pick up as the season progressed. So far, the running game has been inconsistent as the 49ers have moved back to Garoppolo after the injury to Trey Lance. They have also worked in a new starting center. At the same time, the running game is essential to what coach Kyle Shanahan is trying to do on offense.

It always has been for Kyle and his father. In the two Super Bowl appearances Kyle has been part of as an offensive coordinator with Atlanta, and as head coach with San Francisco, the running game ranked near the top of the league.

This Is Not A Typical Mike Shanahan Play

When Mike Shanahan led Denver to back-to-back Super Bowl victories nearly 25 years ago, it was the running of Terrell Davis that fueled the offense and took the burden off John Elway to be great on every play. Davis also happened to be a sixth-round draft.

In the years after, Mike turned low-round and undrafted picks like fourth-rounder Olandis Gary, sixth-rounder Mike Anderson and sixth-rounder Alfred Morris into 1,000-yard rushers. Kyle turned the tandem of Devonta Freeman (fourth round) and Tevin Coleman (third) in Atlanta into a championship contender. In 2019, San Francisco got within a quarter of winning the Super Bowl with the likes of Jeff Wilson and Raheem Mostert in the backfield. Both were undrafted.

McCaffrey costs more than all of them.


The concern is that Christian McCaffrey hasn’t been durable in the previous two years. He missed 23 of 33 games in 2020 and 2021. In addition, there’s a chance he might not be around very long. McCaffrey makes only $1.035 million in base salary this year, but then his salary jumps to $11.8 million in 2023 and 2024 and to $12 million in 2025.

Mike Shanahan And The McCaffrey Family Have Ties

However, the upside is enormous for a team that is struggling. McCaffrey can play wide receiver or slot receiver almost as well as he plays running back. His route-running skills are reminiscent of his father Ed, who helped the elder Shanahan win those two titles in Denver.

Ed McCaffrey gives a salute to running back Terrell Davis 11 after Davis scored Denver’s first touchdown in the AFC Championship game with the Pittsburgh Steelers in Pittsburgh, PA. The Broncos won. (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP via Getty Images)

“The association between the Shanahans and the McCaffreys is pretty strong,” Mike said in an almost gleeful tone, referring to the great times of the past.

If the younger McCaffrey and Shanahan can replicate even one of those two titles, the price will be worth it.

“If you can win a Super Bowl, I’ll trade you my wife,” Shanahan said with a laugh. “Well, not my wife, but one of those guys in San Francisco would do that.”

Written by Jason Cole

Jason Cole has covered or written about pro football since 1992. He is one of 49 selectors for the Pro Football Hall of Fame and has served as a selector since 2013. Cole has worked for publications such as Bleacher Report, Yahoo! Sports, The Miami Herald, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, and started his career with the Peninsula Times-Tribune in Palo Alto. Cole’s five-year investigation of Reggie Bush and the University of Southern California resulted in Bush becoming the only player to ever relinquish his Heisman Trophy and USC losing its 2004 national championship.

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