Balancing the Load: 49ers Aim to Ease McCaffrey’s Burden


The San Francisco 49ers’ offense experienced a significant transformation with the acquisition of running back Christian McCaffrey in 2022. McCaffrey’s first full season with the Niners was nothing short of spectacular. He was named Offensive Player of the Year and finished third in MVP voting, showcasing his dynamic capabilities as both a rusher and a receiver. His presence on the field consistently forces defenses to adapt, making him an invaluable asset to the team. However, head coach Kyle Shanahan is keen on lessening the team’s heavy reliance on the former Stanford star, who played in 81% of the team’s offensive snaps last season.

Shanahan’s Strategy

“We have guys that can run the ball,” Kyle Shanahan told reporters this week. “We have to protect Christian from himself. He doesn’t like to ever come out, no matter what the situation is. And I do think that’s something we could protect him with more.”

Shanahan’s comments reflect a desire to ensure McCaffrey remains healthy and effective throughout the season. While McCaffrey’s versatility and talent are undeniable, the physical toll of playing such a high percentage of snaps is a concern. Shanahan believes the 49ers have the depth at running back to share the load more evenly.

Running Back Depth

On paper, the 49ers should be well-equipped to give McCaffrey the occasional breather. Elijah Mitchell, who rushed for 963 yards as a rookie and has averaged 4.7 yards per carry in his career, is the top backup on the roster. Despite his injury history, Mitchell’s potential to contribute remains significant. Additionally, Jordan Mason, who has averaged an impressive 5.6 yards per carry over his two-year career, provides another reliable option. The addition of speedy rookie fourth-round pick Isaac Guerendo further bolsters the team’s running back depth.

Challenges in Practice

Despite the depth, implementing a reduced workload for McCaffrey might prove challenging. Mitchell and Mason were both available for the majority of the 49ers’ games last season, yet McCaffrey still carried the lion’s share of the workload. The reason is clear: McCaffrey’s exceptional playmaking abilities extend beyond traditional rushing roles. His skill as a route runner and receiver makes him a unique threat that the team is reluctant to sideline.

“When you are such a threat in the passing game, it’s a little bit different,” Shanahan added. “But if he’s just taking the wear and tear with 20 carries and stuff every game — and he’s good enough to do that, and he has proved he can stay healthy — but you’d like to take some of that off of him and give it to other guys also.”

A Special Playmaker

McCaffrey’s versatility is a double-edged sword. While it makes him incredibly valuable, it also increases the temptation to rely on him heavily. His ability to impact the game as a receiver adds a dimension to the 49ers’ offense that few other teams can replicate. This dual-threat capability makes him more than just a running back; he is a key component of the team’s passing attack as well.

Looking Ahead

As the new season approaches, Shanahan’s challenge will be to find the right balance. Ensuring McCaffrey remains healthy and effective throughout the season is crucial for the 49ers’ success. While Mitchell, Mason, and Guerendo provide capable options to share the load, the true test will be in game situations where the instinct might be to lean on McCaffrey’s proven abilities.

The 49ers’ offensive strategy will need to evolve, leveraging their depth at running back while also preserving one of their most valuable assets. Shanahan’s plan to protect McCaffrey from overuse is a wise one, but its success will depend on execution and the ability of the backup running backs to step up when called upon. If the team can achieve this balance, they will be well-positioned for a deep playoff run, with McCaffrey playing a pivotal but sustainable role in their offensive scheme.