SANTA CLARA, Calif. — It’s one game at a time. One practice at a time. One snap at a time. And Christian McCaffrey is not compromising one ounce.
One workout at a time. One study session at a time. One rest at a time. That thing, whatever is right in front of him, gets all of McCaffrey’s focus. It’s this stubbornness of mindset, the diligence of focus, that built him back up. That got him here.
It’s like this quote he heard from a renowned 21st-century urban philosopher, penned in a classic poem called “Weston Road Flows.”
“There’s a Drake line,” McCaffrey said. “He says, ‘Don’t get hyped for the moment and start to backpedal.’ … As soon as you think you made it, you’ll get humbled quick.”
Don’t misunderstand. McCaffrey completely understands the stakes. He felt a sense of satisfaction when he got his first postseason win last year over the Seattle Seahawks, bathed in the fervor of the thrilling win over the Dallas Cowboys. When he stepped on that field in Philadelphia for the NFC Championship Game, he felt the chills of the moment.
That’s why even now, as the San Francisco 49ers get set to kick off their season in Pittsburgh on Sunday, he knows this team is worthy of its stated desire. He’s playing for a Super Bowl contender. The best football of his life is needed. This is what he has always wanted for his career. This is the level his immense talent deserves. He’s on a loaded team of incredible players who together have a chance to immortalize themselves as legends. He knows. This opportunity is not lost on him.
But that’s why he can’t look ahead. He can’t. He won’t.
“When you look at it,” McCaffrey explained, “each play has a life of its own. So every play, you have a job to execute the play. And there are steps involved, zones involved that you have to sit in, reads that you have. If you’re focused on the lights and you kind of miss over them, then you really messed up. I just try to not ever get in that situation. It’s just always been about one day at a time doing everything you can to keep your body, mind, soul ready to play on Sunday. And that’s it.”
It’s producing a version of McCaffrey worthy of salivating over. The head-down, master-the-micro approach has produced an All-Pro talent with a firm grasp of the 49ers offense. Last year, when he was traded to San Francisco before Week 7, he was cramming on the fly as if he were taking the GMAT. Still, the 49ers’ scoring jumped from 20.7 points per game to 30.5 points per game from Week 8 on with McCaffrey.
Now, he’s locked into the 49ers offense. And if he was a weapon when he was learning, how dangerous will he be when coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense is second nature to him?
Chris Foerster, the 49ers’ run game coordinator and offensive line coach, explained it one way Thursday. The offense, by design, will have these gaping holes. As a running back who wasn’t well versed with the scheme, McCaffrey would want to just run through them. It’s the natural instinct of a tailback. But he had to be taught how those holes are but the first layer of the scheme. He needed to be patient to let the whole thing develop.
Now, McCaffrey understands the purpose of the hole and what comes after it, what it’s setting up and how to manipulate it. And because his mind is trained to harness the small things, the finer details, he has absorbed so much of the purpose and philosophy of the offense.
“He’s so on it,” Foerster said, “and still learning and still wanting to be better. He is just so hard on himself, in a positive way, that he’s always wanting to make sure he gets it exactly right. … And he has made huge strides. As much as a guy as talented as Christian can make, he’s made huge strides this year.”
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Last year, McCaffrey got his first taste of the NFL’s highest level. He has felt the weight of championship expectations. In the process, he has received confirmation that his mindset, his approach to the game, works at the highest level.
You better know it didn’t come to him naturally. It was developed. Earned, even. The lows McCaffrey has endured through the years fashioned the mentality that sustains him now. If nothing else, it’s developed his appreciation.
He’s put up big numbers. He’s made the All-Pro team. He’s secured the respect of his peers and the fear of defenses. Only to have two seasons essentially robbed from him with injuries. He played a total of 10 games in 2020 and 2021 combined, creating room for doubt about his durability and, thus, his true potential.
He made the playoffs as a rookie — totaling 117 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown reception in the Panthers’ loss at New Orleans — only to miss the postseason the next four years. Carolina’s win total those four seasons: seven, five, five, five. The Panthers were 1-5 when McCaffrey was traded in 2022.
You can imagine the low moments McCaffrey had in dark times. An offense not doing much around him. Enduring the physicality of his position. Stuck on the sidelines with injuries. On a franchise that deep down he probably knew didn’t have a real chance. Knowing running backs don’t last too long. Knowing he’s underpaid.
Rock bottom comes with concrete lessons.
“Experience will teach you that quick,” McCaffrey said. “My rookie year, the things I used to get excited about, I don’t get excited about anymore.”
One of the things he learned was the meticulousness of building yourself back up. The tediousness of rehab develops patience. Being on a perennial underdog makes you mine the advantages in the margins and get accustomed to little room for error.
That’s how he overcame injuries. That’s how he kept hope in the face of annual odds. By not looking ahead. By not skipping steps. By not focusing on odds and predictions and expectations. Not even the ones whispering to him in his own head.
That he’s here, in a winning program, having tasted the nectar of the second season, is all the more reason not to charge.
The hype, the excitement, the thrilling sense of being on the cusp, all of that is going to come. He felt it. Finally.
“It was special,” he said. “That’s something you just can never take for granted. … It was definitely the most on the line. But you treat everything like that. Obviously, you’re gonna feel a little bit more jitters and you might be running a little faster because you got more adrenaline. But you let the normal emotions of the game come to you, and you prepare like you always do.”
Because backpedaling is not an option.
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(Photo: Jeff Bottari / Getty Images)