The last time the best (and possibly most important) player on a championship team was a running back was in 1999 with Marshall Faulk. The last time a running back won Super Bowl MVP was in the 1997 season with Terrell Davis and the migraine game.
Those are the possibilities facing McCaffrey on Sunday if the 49ers win. There would be many implications of McCaffrey winning a ring, and the storylines may be more interesting than any other player involved in this game. Let’s break it down:
Breaking rushing title curse
McCaffrey led the NFL in rush yards (1,459) this season, the first player to win a rushing title and make the Super Bowl since Shaun Alexander in the 2005 season, 18 years ago! Winning it is a different matter. Only two players have ever won a rushing title and Super Bowl in the same season. Emmitt Smith (1992, 1993 and 1995) and Terrell Davis (1998). Coincidentally, the last player to win a rushing title and Super Bowl in the same season did it for a team with a Shanahan as the head coach (Mike) and a McCaffrey as a teammate (Ed).
Changing how RBs are valued
Jerry Jones said this about the position in 2019 during Ezekiel Elliott’s contract holdout. “The point is, you don’t have to have a rushing champion to win a Super Bowl … Emmitt (Smith) was the first one to do it. That’s one of the dilemmas at running back is that the league knows that you can win Super Bowls and not have Emmitt Smith back there or not have Zeke (Elliott) back there.”
McCaffrey winning a Super Bowl as the best running back in the league, and the highest-paid player at the position may not flip that theory on its head. But, it would mark the biggest win for the running back position in a long time.
This offseason star running backs met on zoom to discuss the financial state of the position in the midst of a wave of unhappy RBs (Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs and Tony Pollard were franchise tagged while Austin Ekeler and Jonathan Taylor requested trades). The RB franchise tag was worth less in 2023 ($10.1 million) than it was in 2015 ($11.0 million).
“Right now, there’s really nothing we can do,” Nick Chubb said. “We’re kind of handcuffed with the situation. We’re the only position that our production hurts us the most. If we go out there and run 2,000 yards with so many carries, the next year they’re going to say, you’re probably worn down. It’s tough. … It hurts us at the end of the day.
“We’re definitely in a tough situation, running backs as a whole. Saquon’s a great player and you can ask anyone around the league or even on the Giants how much he means to that team. So it’s hard seeing him not get what he deserves.”
I laid out solutions when discussing the state of the RB position this offseason, which included RBs dominating on their second contracts and becoming more versatile. Christian McCaffrey is the perfect solution to help drive RB salaries up as the highest-paid running back in the league this year ($16 million per year). The last time the highest-paid RB won a Super Bowl was in 1999 with Marshall Faulk.
1999 Marshall Faulk (Rams)
Highest-paid RB in NFL
1999 Marshall Faulk (Rams)
Scrimmage yards leader
1999 Marshall Faulk (Rams)
Won rushing title
1998 Terrell Davis (Broncos)
McCaffrey would be a complete 180 to the running backs teams have been winning with. He has a higher average salary this year ($16 million) than the leading rusher for the previous nine Super Bowl champions combined ($13.7 million).
This would be a total shock to the NFL system as McCaffrey can usher the league into the future of the RB position, or at the very least, provide a blueprint of the ideal RB. Versatile and supremely-talented back who can run through you between the tackles, outrun you outside the tackles, catch passes and line up all over the field. With McCaffrey leading the way, who knows what kind of athletes he can inspire to play running back.
In the interim, perhaps agents can point to McCaffrey as why you should finally pay a running back. It couldn’t come at a better time as players set to hit the open market include Saquon Barkley, Derrick Henry, Austin Ekeler, Josh Jacobs and Tony Pollard.
Best deadline deal ever?
A 49ers win would rightfully remind people that San Francisco traded a second, third, fourth and fifth-round pick for McCaffrey near the 2022 trade deadline. They also beat out the Rams to get him. It’s a heist when you consider the return with McCaffrey, who leads the NFL in touchdowns (31) and scrimmage yards (3,233) since last year’s trade. Not to mention, the loss of those picks sting a little less when you are getting the most compensatory picks in the league.
This is certainly in the conversation for best in-season trade ever (1989 Herschel Walker, 2010 Marshawn Lynch, 2021 Von Miller) and given how quickly San Francisco can win a title in large part to the trade, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear best trade ever talk (John Elway, Brett Favre, Eli Manning, Marshall Faulk, Matthew Stafford, Randy Moss, Herschel Walker, Steve Young deals come to mind).
Top-10 greatest RB season ever?
McCaffrey isn’t just the best RB in the league this year. With a ring, you could make a case this is one of the 10 greatest seasons by a RB all-time. When you talk about both production and winning, only a few running backs would be mentioned in the same breath as McCaffrey.
He’s already posted the 14th season in NFL history with 2,000 scrimmage yards and 20 touchdowns. Among that group, only Emmitt Smith (1995) and Terrell Davis (1998) won titles that year.
McCaffrey has a 49ers record 25 touchdowns including playoffs this season, the most by any player in a season since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006.
This is the best season by a RB in 49ers history (shoutout to Roger Craig’s 1985 season and Frank Gore in 2006) and judging by the list of 10 greatest RB seasons in NFL history that my colleague Bryan DeArdo drew up last offseason – CMC could crack the list.
First-ballot Hall of Famer?
A championship would also make this the signature season in a surefire Hall-of-Fame career, probably first ballot. McCaffrey is one of 10 players in NFL history with 10,000 scrimmage yards and 80 touchdowns through seven seasons. Of the eight retired players, six are first-ballot Hall of Famers (Jim Brown, Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Marshall Faulk and LaDainian Tomlinson). The other two are Adrian Peterson (future first ballot HOFer) and Shaun Alexander.
McCaffrey’s list of NFL accomplishments are staggering:
- Fourth-most scrimmage yards per game in NFL history (115.4)
- One of 10 players with 10,000 scrimmage yards and 80 TD through seven seasons
- Only player with 60 rush yards per game and 40 receiving yards per game in NFL history
- One of three players all-time with 1,000 rush yards and 1,000 receiving yards in a season
- 2023 NFL Offensive Player of the Year, MVP finalist and rushing title winner
- Super Bowl LVIII participant
There have been 15 first-ballot Hall-of-Fame RBs since 1970. With a win on Sunday, McCaffrey’s trajectory to join that list is solidified even further.
- 1970 Hugh McElhenny
- 1971 Jim Brown
- 1972 Ollie Matson
- 1977 Gale Sayers
- 1985 O.J. Simpson
- 1990 Franco Harris
- 1991 Earl Campbell
- 1993 Walter Payton
- 1994 Tony Dorsett
- 1999 Eric Dickerson
- 2003 Marcus Allen
- 2004 Barry Sanders
- 2010 Emmitt Smith
- 2011 Marshall Faulk
- 2017 LaDainian Tomlinson
Narratives aside, McCaffrey will have one thing on his mind Sunday. Be the best player on the field and help deliver the 49ers their first Super Bowl title in 29 years.