INGLEWOOD, Calif. — The San Francisco 49ers were putting together their red zone plan on Thursday night when the yell came from coach Kyle Shanahan’s office.
To nobody in particular, Shanahan posed a simple question: Can Christian McCaffrey, the team’s recently acquired star running back, throw the football at all? The question was initially met with silence, but a few moments later Shanahan received a text from tight ends coach Brian Fleury.
The text was a video from Dec. 17, 2018, with McCaffrey tossing a 50-yard touchdown pass against the New Orleans Saints. Satisfied with Fleury’s answer, Shanahan went about adding a McCaffrey pass to the game plan for Sunday’s 31-14 victory against the Los Angeles Rams.
Little did Shanahan know that it would become the signature play on a history-making day for McCaffrey.
Without do-it-all receiver Deebo Samuel, McCaffrey offered the Niners the ultimate in versatile performances, as he threw for, ran for, and caught a touchdown and the Niners moved to 4-4 heading into their bye week.
“I think everyone knows how good of a player he is but I just like how consistent he is and under control in what he does,” Shanahan said. “He’s a very smart player and he makes a lot of plays and stuff, but it’s the consistency of how he plays his game. I feel like he was a great guy to add for us.”
After tossing for a score and catching one, his 1-yard rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter made McCaffrey the first player since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2005 to throw for, run for and catch a touchdown in the same game. He’s the fourth player – along with Tomlinson, receiver David Patten and running back Walter Payton — since the 1970 merger to complete the trifecta.
It’s the eighth straight regular-season win for the Niners against the Rams but McCaffrey’s first taste of the rivalry. He fit right in, having a hand in 183 yards from scrimmage, including 94 rushing and 55 receiving on 27 touches.
After the game, the soft-spoken McCaffrey wasn’t so concerned with his individual performance as he was his first victory with the 49ers.
“That’s awesome,” McCaffrey said. “Obviously, those things are really cool. I think the biggest thing is coming out with a win and playing a second half like that, too … But I’m just proud to be a 49er and it felt good to get a win today.”
McCaffrey got the Niners’ scoring started with his second career touchdown pass. On second-and-8 from the Rams’ 34 with 12:10 left in the second quarter, Niners quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo threw to McCaffrey in the right flat. McCaffrey caught it behind the line of scrimmage and rolled to his right before looking deep down the right side for wideout Brandon Aiyuk.
McCaffrey lofted a pass with enough air under it for Aiyuk to turn multiple times and haul it in for a touchdown that, paired with Robbie Gould‘s extra point tied it at 7.
“That was a dot,” tight end George Kittle said. “Perfect. The pass was awesome, the catch was awesome.”
Indeed, McCaffrey’s touchdown catch might have been his most impressive play of the day. With 1:51 left in the third quarter, Garoppolo dropped back to pass from the Rams’ 9. As Garoppolo scanned the field, nobody was open so he moved up in the pocket as the Niners commenced the scramble drill.
McCaffrey, who was the fifth option in the passing progression, shook loose down the right sideline. Garoppolo lofted it up and McCaffrey leaped high in the air to snag it for the touchdown grab to give the Niners a 17-14 lead they would not relinquish.
The touchdown was the first one McCaffrey scored as a Niner and put him in some rare company in franchise history. McCaffrey and Emmanuel Sanders (Week 14 of 2019) are the only Niners to have a passing touchdown and a receiving touchdown in the same game in the past 70 years.
“I went through the whole read left to right,” Garoppolo said. “He turned it up field. That’s just being a football player … That wasn’t really how it was scripted. He just made a play.”
McCaffrey’s big day comes in his second game as a Niner and his first following a full week of practice. San Francisco dealt second-, third- and fourth-round picks in 2023 and a fifth-round selection in 2024 to the Panthers for McCaffrey in an Oct. 20 trade.
To get up to speed quickly, McCaffrey has been spending long hours at the Niners’ facility working with assistant coaches Bobby Turner and Anthony Lynn and stealing additional time with Garoppolo whenever possible.
In addition to his touchdown trifecta, McCaffrey also became the only player in the Super Bowl era to have at least one of each kind of offensive touchdown and 30 or more yards passing, rushing and receiving in a game.
McCaffrey’s performance also left the Niners imagining what could be when key players like Samuel and fellow wideout Jauan Jennings return from hamstring injuries.
“With all those skill position (talent), there isn’t a ceiling, really,” Kittle said. “We should go out there, we should be getting a lot of points.”