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

Running back Christian McCaffrey is sure to give the San Francisco 49ers all sorts of welcomes.

The statistic is: Catch by No. 23

But beware of the catch-22.

“It’s going to be interesting to see Kyle use this incredible chess piece,” said retired quarterback Kurt Warner, 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 succeeded that way, but now you get that piece in McCaffrey, which is so different. You don’t want to stray so far from what you were that you are now becoming something else.”

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

So the 49ers have a new weapon, but are they willing to take a different route to exploit everything McCaffrey can do?

Warner is particularly familiar with an extremely versatile player like McCaffrey — who was just traded from Carolina to the 49ers — because he had that with fellow Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk when they were with the St. Louis Rams.

“He fits in with them if you look at his ability to run after catch,” Faulk said of McCaffrey. “He’s a one-cut runner. He can make guys miss him but the whole zoning scheme is perfect for him. The things he did at Stanford kinda fit with 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’ve got plenty of life left in your legs. But he said their situations are very different.

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

“This kid gets put on a team that has a really good chance if the quarterback plays well.”

Only three players in NFL history have rushed and received 1,000 yards in the same season: McCaffrey, Faulk, and former 49ers legend Roger Craig.

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

It’s not uncommon for the 49ers to make a big move midseason — that’s how they got quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and receiver Emmanuel Sanders in years past — and McCaffrey made good use of his story at Stanford, the friendship between his father Ed and San , especially a lot of sense Francisco General Manager John Lynch and various other connections.

Ever since he was hired to coach the 49ers in 2017, Shanahan has been searching for the stable running back who could be the centerpiece of his offense. The team has had a different rushing leader in each of the last five seasons.

There were hints of running backs in the draft (Joe Williams and Trey Sermon) and ball carriers who were excellent but got injured (Raheem Mostert and Elijah Mitchell). But the club lacked that reliable, consistent presence in the backcourt.

Is McCaffrey the answer? Injuries interrupted his 2020 and 21 seasons, and he only played 10 games in that span. When he’s healthy, he’s one of the most dynamic players in football. In 2019, he rushed for 1,307 yards and received 1,005 yards.

San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey (23) takes on the Kansas City Chiefs.

Christian McCaffrey’s ability to run and catch football makes the new 49ers running backs a valuable addition to their offense.

(Lachlan Cunningham/Associated Press)

“The interesting thing is how they get more creative with him in the passing game than they do in the running game,” Warner said, noting he was surprised the 49ers didn’t attempt more throws from the backfield to Deebo Samuel, who falls on Sunday with a hamstring injury.

“You can connect a lot of people and manage football successfully. Christian is obviously even better than most, so he’ll do well there. But I just look at him and go, he’s the ultimate chess piece because you can’t compete with him.

“You need a linebacker because you’re going to be in charge of football. Now you use it marginally, like we did at Marshall, and that’s where it was so crucial for us.”

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

When McCaffrey took on the Rams two weeks ago as a member of the Carolina Panthers, he ran 13 times for 69 yards and caught seven passes for an additional 89 yards.

“I don’t know how many catches the 49ers generally get from their running back position,” said Warner, an analyst with NFL Network. “They don’t really design much for these guys.

“That we put Marshall outside or designed certain concepts of passing for him was the point where he was so difficult to stop. What made Marshall so dynamic was that he was so cerebral. He could run any type of runs – speed to get outside, power to run on third and one between tackles. He could route like a wide receiver so we could put him anywhere.

“The best thing about Marshall is that he saw the game the way I saw the game. When he was running routes we were so agreed that I know Marshall will read that the same way so now I can throw it here or there or he’ll go flat and it was such cerebral -ness that he had – if that’s a word – that just made it so great.

Obviously, the 49ers see the same potential for McCaffrey on 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 a chance to prove it. Big mystery for Rams: How will 49ers use Christian McCaffrey?

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