Big mystery for Rams: How will 49ers utilize Christian McCaffrey?

San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey against the Kansas City Chiefs during an NFL football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez)
The Rams are facing Christian McCaffrey wearing different uniforms within two weeks, the back being traded from Carolina to San Francisco. (Godofredo A. Vásquez / Associated Press)

Running back Christian McCaffrey is sure to reel in all sorts of receptions for the San Francisco 49ers.

The stats will read: catch by No. 23.

But beware of the Catch-22.

“To see how Kyle uses this incredible chess piece will be interesting,” retired quarterback Kurt Warner said, referring to 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, whose team will play the Rams on Sunday. “Because they’re really built a certain way, and they’ve had success that way, but now you get this piece in McCaffrey who is so different. You don’t want to get so far away from what you’ve been that now you become something different.”

It’s a little like golf: You don’t change your swing in the middle of a round.

So the 49ers have a new weapon, but are they ready to take a different path in order to take advantage of everything McCaffrey can do?

Warner is particularly familiar with an ultra-versatile player such as McCaffrey — just traded to the 49ers by Carolina — because he had that with fellow Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk when they were with the St. Louis Rams.

“He fits in with them when you look at his ability to run after the catch,” Faulk said of McCaffrey. “He’s a one-cut runner. He can make guys miss, but the whole zone scheme is perfect for him. The things he did at Stanford kind of fits what [the 49ers] do, and this is the best cast of characters he’s had.”

Faulk was traded from Indianapolis to St. Louis, so he understands what it’s like to switch franchises when you still have plenty of life in your legs. But he said their situations were vastly different.

“I was sent to St. Louis to be buried,” Faulk said of 1999 Colts general manager Bill Polian. “If we’re being honest, he didn’t send me there to win a Super Bowl.

“This kid is being put on a team that has a really good opportunity if the quarterback plays well.”

Only three players in NFL history have recorded 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season: McCaffrey, Faulk and former 49ers great Roger Craig.

The 49ers and Rams bid on McCaffrey, but the 49ers were willing to give up more draft capital, even though Los Angeles was ready to throw running back Cam Akers into the deal. San Francisco surrendered its picks in the second, third and fourth rounds in 2023, and a fifth-rounder in 2024.

It’s not unusual for the 49ers to make a big midseason move — in years past, they got quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and receiver Emmanuel Sanders that way — and McCaffrey made particular sense with his history at Stanford, the friendship between his father, Ed, and San Francisco general manager John Lynch, and various other connections.

Since he was hired as 49ers coach in 2017, Shanahan has searched for that stable running back who could be the centerpiece of his offense. The team has had a different rushing leader each of the last five seasons.

There have been whiffs on running backs in the draft (Joe Williams and Trey Sermon) and ball carriers who were excellent but got hurt (Raheem Mostert and Elijah Mitchell). As a result, the club has lacked that reliable, steady presence in the backfield.

Is McCaffrey the answer? Injuries cut short his last two seasons, and he played in just 10 games during that span. When healthy, he’s among the most dynamic players in football. In 2019, he rushed for 1,387 yards and had 1,005 yards receiving.

San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey (23) runs against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Christian McCaffrey's ability to rush and catch the football make the new 49ers running back a valuable addition to their offense. (Lachlan Cunningham / Associated Press)

“The interesting thing is how they’ll get creative in the pass game with him, more so than the run game,” Warner said, noting he’s surprised the 49ers haven’t tried more throws out of the backfield to Deebo Samuel, who is out Sunday because of a hamstring injury.

“They can plug a lot of guys in and have success running the football. Christian’s obviously even better than most, so he’ll make them good there. But I just look at him and go, he’s the ultimate chess piece because you can’t match up with him.

“You’ve got to have a linebacker in because you’re going to run the football. Now you utilize him on the edge like we did with Marshall, and that’s where he was such a difference maker for us.”

McCaffrey was on the field for 22 snaps against Kansas City on Sunday, after touching down in the Bay Area late Friday morning. So he barely had 48 hours with his new team before he was in a game. He ran eight times for 38 yards and had two catches for 24 yards. He figures to make a more significant contribution against the Rams, especially with Samuel out.

When McCaffrey faced the Rams as a member of the Panthers two weeks ago, he ran 13 times for 69 yards and caught seven passes for another 89.

“I don’t know how many catches the 49ers get in general from their running back position,” said Warner, an NFL Network analyst. “They don’t really design a lot for those guys.

“Us putting Marshall outside or designing specific pass concepts for him was where he was so tough to stop. The thing that made Marshall so dynamic is that he was so cerebral. He could run any kind of runs — speed to get outside, strength to run between the tackles on third and one. He could run routes like a wide receiver so we could put him anywhere.

“The greatest thing about Marshall is that he saw the game the way I saw the game. So when he was running routes, we were so much on the same page that I know Marshall is going to read this the same way, so now I can throw it here or there, or he’s going to break flat, and it was that cerebral-ness that he had — if that’s a word — that just made it so awesome.”

Clearly, the 49ers see that same potential for McCaffrey in their offense, and that’s why they spent so much to land him. To them, he’s more than just another running back. Now, McCaffrey has the chance to prove it.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.