SANTA CLARA — Christian McCaffrey keeps scoring touchdowns but yardage has been harder to come by of late right up until the point where he crosses the goal line.
McCaffrey can tie an NFL record set by Lenny Moore of the Baltimore Colts in 1963-65 by scoring a touchdown in his 17th consecutive game when the 49ers host the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday at Levi’s Stadium.
Rather than jinx the streak, McCaffrey avoids the topic as he would a defender.
“We’ve just got to keep it going,” McCaffrey said Thursday. “I try not to talk about it. Keep it rolling.”
Since Moore’s streak included a recovered fumble from a teammate in the end zone, McCaffrey already owns the record of touchdowns from scrimmage (rushing or receiving), passing Hall of Famers O.J. Simpson and John Riggins, who each scored touchdowns in 15 consecutive games.
McCaffrey’s streak includes touchdowns scored in each of the 49ers’ three playoff games last season.
Tied with former 49er Raheem Mostert of Miami with 11 touchdowns this season, McCaffrey has scored eight times on runs and three times on receptions — with one of each in the 49ers’ 22-17 loss to the Minnesota Vikings.
No stranger to the end zone, McCaffrey has 71 touchdowns (46 rushing, 25 receiving) in 82 games with the Carolina Panthers and 49ers. He had 31 touchdowns in three seasons at Stanford and over his four years at Valor Christian High in Colorado had 141 touchdowns, a state record.
That’s 243 touchdowns at three levels and doesn’t even take into account youth football. Coach Kyle Shanahan, tongue in cheek, is willing to take his share of credit.
“It’s real good coaching,” Shanahan said with a laugh. “He’s unbelievable at it. I think he’s done it since I heard about it growing up in Denver, to college, whatever team he’s been on. He knows how to get to the end zone.”
49ers star Christian McCaffrey is into the end zone, and into the NFL record books. This marks the 16th straight game where McCaffrey scored a touchdown, breaking the record held by multiple players.pic.twitter.com/PuOkmJPF44
— The Comeback (@thecomeback) October 24, 2023
McCaffrey came out of the Minnesota defeat less concerned about the touchdown streak than about the one that got away. A lost fumble at the Minnesota 11-yard line on the opening possession prevented the 49ers from getting off to a good start on the road, and afterward, McCaffrey spoke to reporters with an angry edge.
“I made a bad mistake today that I believe cost us the game,” McCaffrey said.
It’s the same edge former Stanford coach David Shaw remembers when recruiting McCaffrey at Valor Christian. Despite the obvious skill set, the thing that struck Shaw was how angry McCaffrey got when he was tackled — even on routine plays.
The anger over the fumble has dissipated, if not the desire to make things right by working through the process.
“I think whenever you lose you’re pretty upset,” McCaffrey said. “But this league is really 17 one-week seasons and you’ve got to get back to the drawing board and fix your mistakes and capitalize on your strengths and execute on Sunday.”
Unsure whether it will be Brock Purdy or Sam Darnold at quarterback against Cincinnati, it would behoove the 49ers to get McCaffrey going in the running game whether he reaches the end zone or not.
In the first four games, teammates marveled at what McCaffrey was doing as a bruising runner as opposed to a receiving back, breaking tackles and sometimes hurdling them to keep the 49ers in good down-and-distance scenarios.
McCaffrey opened with 152 yards on 22 carries and a touchdown against Pittsburgh, including a 65-yard touchdown run. He added 116 yards in Week 2 against the Rams, 85 against the New York Giants and finally 106 yards on 20 carries with three rushing touchdowns (plus a receiving score) against Arizona.
In Week 5 in the 49ers’ 40-12 signature win against Dallas, the Cowboys loaded up to stop McCaffrey and held him to 51 yards on 19 carries. In so doing, they relinquished other things and paid the price.
Yet after the Dallas game, McCaffrey was still caught in the slog. Since gaining 459 yards on 80 carries and averaging 5.7 yards per carry in the first four games, McCaffrey has 139 on 45 carries and a 3.1 average in the last three.
Clearly Weeks 1 through 4 gave opponents the heads up that McCaffrey was doing more damage than ever on the run as opposed to as a combination threat. Six different players have been fined for hits on McCaffrey, in part because he’s a target and in part because defenders realize he often simply won’t go down.
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“Shoot, the first play of the Dallas game they try to rip his head off,” line coach and run game coordinator Chris Foerster said. “There’s this feeling of ‘We’re not going to let this guy run.’ ”
Yet the 49ers’ mindset and philosophy is that being successful with the run means doing it even in the face of defenses loading the box to stop them.
“We haven’t given him the lanes that he needs,” Foerster said. “The last couple of games, it just hasn’t been there. You create that space by blocking for him better . . . it’s not anything they’re doing. It’s not anything he’s doing. We’re just not as productive these last couple games and that’s in all areas.”
McCaffrey seems confident enough that the lanes will re-open soon enough. Oct. 20 marked one year since he arrived for a cache of draft picks and McCaffrey believes the 49ers and Shanahan’s system has taken him to a new level.
“I’ve had a lot of different coaches in my career and I’ve learned a lot,” McCaffrey said. “Getting here and seeing how and why they do things is so cool. Every day I feel like a kid in a candy store just learning ways to run the ball the purpose behind a lot of routes in the pass game.”