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There’s nothing Christian McCaffrey can’t do

There’s nothing Christian McCaffrey can’t do

طوبیٰ Tooba 55 years ago 0 0

LAS VEGAS — Christian McCaffrey was different from the start. His grandfather was an Olympic sprinter, his mother a star soccer player at Stanford, his father a three-time Super Bowl champion wide receiver.

McCaffrey played Power Rangers with Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe in the Denver Broncos’ locker room and chased his brothers around the team’s facility, snatching bubble gum and protein bars. He ran around confetti-covered fields wearing an oversized No. 87 Broncos jersey — his father’s number — after Super Bowl victories.

In high school, McCaffrey’s coaches had to resist playing him too much because he could line up anywhere. He was a polished route-runner before most wide receivers learn the basics and could break tackles as a running back. He could throw the ball, catch the ball, run inside the tackles and outside. He was a menacing defensive back. He even blocked six punts one season.

“The state championship game [his freshman year] was like the first time where he’s like, ‘Hey, I really want the ball,’ ” said Brent Vieselmeyer, the former Commanders defensive backs coach who coached McCaffrey at Valor Christian High in Colorado. “… So he took off, and from there he just sort of kept getting better.”

McCaffrey had 146 scrimmage yards and a receiving touchdown in that game. The next year, he amassed 312 scrimmage yards and four touchdowns — a penalty nullified a fifth — in the title game. For good measure, he had a pass deflection on defense.

McCaffrey became nationally known at Stanford, where he set an NCAA record for all-purpose yards in a season. As a pro, he has transcended the game as one of the most complete and prolific players in the NFL, a rocked-up, 210-pound running back for the San Francisco 49ers. He is, in many ways, a unicorn, and he has changed the way other teams scout and evaluate his position. Finding a true three-down back is emphasized. Landing one who can also catch like a wideout and block is a luxury.

“He’s one of those guys showing that multifaceted running backs are really important in this league,” said former Commanders coach Ron Rivera, who coached McCaffrey with the Carolina Panthers.

On Thursday night, McCaffrey was named the NFL’s offensive player of the year and finished third in the MVP voting behind Lamar Jackson and Dak Prescott. But his lengthy list of accolades over the years — he has been an all-pro three times, has been selected to three Pro Bowls and was the Associated Press college football player of the year and a Heisman Trophy finalist in 2015 — still fall short of encapsulating his value on the field.

McCaffrey led the league with 1,459 rushing yards this season. The 72 missed tackles he forced on rushes were the most in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. He was the first player since 2017 to lead the NFL in rushing yards both before (510) and after (949) contact in the same season, according to Next Gen Stats. And he did so while facing an eight-man box — a defensive alignment designed to counter the run — 36 percent of the time, more often than any other player in the league.

“He’s the best football player I’ve seen,” 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “I am convinced if he played wide receiver he would be an all-pro wide receiver. He sees the field like a quarterback. … You can’t ask him to do anything else. I mean, he’s thrown touchdowns. He’s incredible.”

McCaffrey spent the first five-plus seasons of his career with the Panthers, who drafted him eighth in 2017 and traded him to the 49ers in 2022 for a haul of draft picks. In San Francisco, he was thrown in the mix immediately, practicing hours after he arrived and playing in a game two days later. He debuted with his new team against the Kansas City Chiefs, his opponent Sunday in Super Bowl LVIII, coming off the bench to play 23 snaps and record 62 scrimmage yards.

“I remember in the fourth quarter, I was on the sidelines, and I taught Christian the two-minute drill,” Juszczyk said. “… He learned it in five minutes of me just speaking it to him. I think that just showed — I mean, the guy’s incredibly physically gifted, but he’s also extremely smart, very cerebral and is able to pick up and learn offenses very quickly.”

The 49ers’ offense under Coach Kyle Shanahan has evolved to become one of the most complex and explosive in the league. Learning one position is difficult enough. And to become a complete player, to fully comprehend Shanahan’s intention on each play, McCaffrey believes he needed to learn them all. His personal quest to be more than a back started with a more simple goal: to never come off the field. If he could do more, he would be used more.

“Obviously, my dad being a receiver, he taught us all how to run routes,” McCaffrey said. “… I think one of the best ways to train as a running back is to run receiver routes because you’re making different angled cuts, full speed in as minimal steps as you can. So to me, that’s a lot of the ways that I train to play running back. … That was always important to me, just to be a complete football player and not just [be] put … in a box of being a running back.”

As one of four brothers, McCaffrey was groomed to be competitive. Those who know his family well say his mother, Lisa, is the most competitive. But McCaffrey’s mission to succeed started with besting his brothers.

When they roamed the Broncos’ facility, they would challenge one another to see who could keep his head in the cold tub the longest. Vacations would turn into push-up competitions. McCaffrey often competed in activities with his older brother, Max, and his friends — and then lost every one.

“He would beat the hell out of me in one-on-one outside, whether we were shooting hoops, whether we were playing football, video games, whatever it was,” said McCaffrey, who credits Max for much of his success.

“A lot of the drive is from when people doubt him or will try to compare him to a family member,” Vieselmeyer said. “That was a big thing. He’s proud of his family, but I think he definitely wanted to be his own, in a good way. It’s constant improvement. He’s all about proving you wrong.”

From the outside, McCaffrey has seemed to succeed at every stop — and succeed with ease. But away from the cameras and lights, his work ethic and drive have been described as almost maniacal. He stopped eating sugar while at Stanford. After a training session in college, which included a tug-of-war between freshmen and upperclassmen, he was so competitive he lost a layer of skin on his hands.

“He carried around a sheet of paper and a Connect 4 board, and he kept track of his record against every person he played in the locker room throughout the entire year, like a running log, his wins and losses,” said Chiefs safety Justin Reid, who played with McCaffrey at Stanford.

San Francisco center Jake Brendel said McCaffrey is usually there when he arrives at the team’s facility each morning and is still there when he leaves. Vieselmeyer saw that same trait when McCaffrey was in high school and said his only flaw was his inability to rest and take time off. When McCaffrey missed time because of injuries early in his career, Vieselmeyer said, he researched how to maintain his body better and essentially developed his own training regimen with his personal strength and conditioning coach.

Rivera recalled the Panthers’ trainer telling him McCaffrey was going to wear himself down. “We just got to get him to chill every now and then,” Rivera recalled the trainer saying. “He did it reluctantly,” Rivera added. “Every opportunity he had to practice, he wanted to practice.”

That drive led McCaffrey in 2019 to become only the third player, along with Marshall Faulk (1999) and Roger Craig (1985), to record at least 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in a season. Four years later, McCaffrey gifted Rivera a signed jersey after the Commanders played the 49ers late in the season. The moment is one Rivera won’t forget.

“I said to him, ‘You know, the one thing I don’t have is … your jersey,’ ” Rivera recalled. “He looked at me and said, ‘I’m going to give you this one.’ And he did. What’s funny is he signed it: Thanks for taking a chance and drafting me.”

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