Christian McCaffrey Super Bowl Preview: CMC Perfect for 49ers Offense

Christian McCaffrey Super Bowl Preview: CMC Perfect for 49ers Offense article feature image

Photo by Ryan Kang/Getty Images. Pictured: Christian McCaffrey.

Christian McCaffrey was born to be the star player in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York said as much at Super Bowl media day: “If you just drew your own player in Madden and created your own guy, I don’t know that you could create a more perfect guy to fit in Kyle’s offense.”

The partnership between McCaffrey and Shanahan is decades in the making.

In 1995, offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan and wide receiver Ed McCaffrey helped the 49ers to their most recent Super Bowl title. Christian McCaffrey wouldn’t be born for another year and a half, but Kyle Shanahan was already learning and preparing for his time.

Mike Shanahan would later become the head coach of the Denver Broncos, where he would lead the franchise to two Super Bowls in the late 1990s. While John Elway is lauded for those rings, it was Shanahan’s development of the zone-rushing offense that pushed Denver over the top in Elway’s 15th and 16th professional seasons.

Mike Shanahan may have had an inkling at the time that his son had a future in coaching. After all, Kyle Shanahan was on the sideline with him during the Broncos’ Super Bowl championships. However, Mike Shanahan would have needed a crystal ball to foretell Ed McCaffrey’s then-toddler son Christian McCaffrey becoming the Hall of Fame centerpiece of one of the most productive offenses in NFL history.

In this article, I’ll provide context about how the Shanahan offense has evolved and what makes McCaffrey the perfect player for it.

Let’s dive in.

The Birth of the Zone-Rushing Offense

After winning a Super Bowl as the offensive coordinator of the 49ers, Mike Shanahan was hired as the Broncos’ head coach in 1995. One of his first hires was legendary offensive line coach Alex Gibbs. Together, Shanahan and Gibbs pioneered the zone-rushing offense that you see virtually every team utilize in the NFL today.

Before Shanahan became the head coach of the Broncos, West Coast offenses primarily used man- and gap-blocking schemes. However, Shanahan began prioritizing athleticism and mobility in his offensive linemen rather than sheer strength and size, and the early stages of the zone scheme were put in motion.

Rather than focusing on individual assignments for blockers, Shanahan asked his offensive linemen and receivers to block specific areas of the field. Rather than heavy packages with extra offensive linemen and fullbacks, Shanahan asked his wide receivers and tight ends to block in the open field to help spring runs at the second level.

Shanahan and Gibbs’s offensive scheme led to two Super Bowl championships for Denver, and Terrell Davis won Super Bowl MVP in 1997 with 157 rushing yards and three touchdowns.

Gibbs passed away in 2021, but he left behind a legacy of offensive innovation that permeates in the NFL today.

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Play No. 1

We’ll get into some of Christian McCaffrey’s more brilliant plays this season, but the first play I’ll show here is one where he didn’t have to do a ton.

I want to provide an example of what the 49ers’ outside-zone offense looks like. This came in Week 2 against the Rams, and it’s a huge gain on the ground for McCaffrey:

This play starts with wide receiver Jauan Jennings (#15) motioning over from the right side to the left, putting him in position to serve as a blocker, where he provides a ton of value for this team. He initially chips linebacker Ernest Jones (#53) to help tight end George Kittle (#85), before working the boundary where he throws a perfect block on cornerback Derion Kendrick (#1), completely taking him out of the play.

Meanwhile, as he’s done so well for his entire career, left tackle Trent Williams (#71) works to the second level, where he seals off linebacker Christian Rozeboom (#56). With Deebo Samuel (#19) providing an additional block at the second level, a huge opening is formed, and McCaffrey can do the rest, bursting through for a 51-yard gain before he’s ever really touched by a defender.

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Play No. 2

One of McCaffrey’s best plays of the season came in Week 1 against the Steelers.

I highly encourage you to watch this a few times as I uncovered something different each time I viewed it:

One of the hallmarks of zone blocking is leaving the cutback defender unblocked to allow offensive linemen to work their way to the second level as quickly as possible.

In this case, T.J. Watt (#90) is left uncovered as right tackle Colton McKivitz (#68) works inside, allowing right guard Spencer Burford (#74) to work to the second level.

Center Jake Brendel (#64) also gets to the second level, but McCaffrey is initially forced into his backside due to the location of his block. However, his elite contact balance allows him to bounce off the hit, spin away from cornerback Levi Wallace (#29), and spring a huge opening.

From there, McCaffrey receives tremendous help from wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk (#11) on a nasty block in the open field. With a full head of steam, McCaffrey keeps his eyes up, sees cornerback Patrick Peterson (#20) closing in on him, and cuts to the inside and back out. That move buys McCaffrey enough time to reach the end zone.

For many running backs, this play would have been dead once McCaffrey hit Brendel’s backside. For others, it would have surely been over once Peterson caught up in the open field. Not for McCaffrey.

Play No. 3

While that play against the Steelers went for a long touchdown, some of McCaffrey’s most brilliant plays this season have come when he’s created something out of nothing.

He did exactly that on Thanksgiving against the Seahawks:

Freeze the clip at around the five-second mark. Does that look like a play that would normally result in a touchdown? Of course not.

The Seahawks have overloaded that side of the field with a mess of ugly neon green jerseys in the box, and there’s only one true defender over the top running with Brandon Aiyuk.

It looks like Aiyuk doesn’t even think McCaffrey will find a way out of this mess as he never seals the block on the cornerback downfield, which is uncharacteristic given the receiver's elite blocking prowess. However, McCaffrey displays patience, waits for a small crease to develop, bursts through the hole and hits the end zone for six.

There isn’t another running back who could have made this play.

Play No. 4

Perhaps the most important play of McCaffrey’s season came in the Divisional Round against the Packers. San Francisco had just given up a long touchdown drive to watch Green Bay take a 13-7 lead in the third quarter, and it was in desperate need of a response.

With the season potentially on the line, McCaffrey delivered:

The 49ers are lined up in I-formation with Brock Purdy under center and Kyle Juszczyk (#44) lined up in front of McCaffrey. The Packers send cornerback Jaire Alexander (#23) on the blitz, anticipating the run, but he’s on the weak side and can’t impact the play.

There seems to be a miscommunication between Juszczyk and tight end Charlie Woerner (#89), who is giving George Kittle a spell after he had a huge play on the snap prior. Juszczyk signals to Woerner to motion to the other side of the formation, but Purdy corrects him, keeping him in place. Aside from the interesting operational aspects, it’s fascinating that they wind up overlapping in blocking responsibilities and this play still works so well.

Center Jake Brendel (#64) immediately fires to the second level after the snap, picking up linebacker Quay Walker (#7) while right tackle Colton McKivitz (#68) joins him. The initial blocks only go so far as McCaffrey is met with a one-on-one against safety Darnell Savage (#26). McCaffrey makes it look easy as he evades the tackle, maintaining his balance despite Savage latching onto his ankle.

Once again, McCaffrey’s elite vision, burst and contact balance reign supreme as he turns what could have been a minimal gain into a momentum-shifting touchdown.

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It’s an understatement to say the McCaffrey trade has been a smashing success for the 49ers. His impact was felt right away in the 2022 season as the 49ers jumped from the No. 18 offense by EPA in the first six weeks to No. 2 from Week 7 on. In rushing specifically, they jumped from No. 25 to No. 3. This season, San Francisco led the NFL in most offensive metrics, including overall and rushing EPA.

According to Next Gen Stats, McCaffrey was the first player since 2017 to lead the league in rushing yards both before (510) and after (949) contact in the same season. He also led the NFL with 44 rushing attempts of 10-plus yards.

The 49ers utilize either inside or outside zone on 57% of their run plays, according to FTN, and McCaffrey’s skill set makes him a perfect fit for that type of offense. The Kansas City Chiefs have struggled to defend the run all season — specifically zone rushing — as they rank bottom five in yards per carry and success rate allowed. Kansas City also ranks 31st in stuff rate against zone runs.

The Chiefs will likely have no choice but to load the box in an effort to stop McCaffrey, but even that likely won’t be enough with the nuance and consistency of Shanahan’s zone-blocking offense. Expect plenty of fakes, counters and play-action passes off McCaffrey runs, but at the end of the day, No. 23 will be the driving force behind the 49ers offense.

Shanahan and McCaffrey are ready to cement their legacies and follow in their fathers’ footsteps by bringing a Super Bowl championship back to San Francisco.

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