49ers' Christian McCaffrey makes MVP case with 4 TDs in rout

ByNick Wagoner ESPN logo
Monday, October 2, 2023

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The NFL's Most Valuable Player award has been given to a quarterback for each of the past 10 seasons.

It's a fact that wasn't lost in the conversation in the San Francisco 49ers' locker room after their 35-16 win against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.

But, after running back Christian McCaffrey piled up 177 yards from scrimmage, scored four times and set a franchise record for most consecutive games with at least one touchdown (13, including playoffs), left tackle Trent Williams was unafraid to say it might be time for that to change.

"Hey, all them streaks come to an end eventually, right?" Williams said. "This might be the year. I can see it."

On Oct. 20, it will have been one year since the Niners acquired McCaffrey from the Carolina Panthersfor second, third and fourth-round picks in the 2023 NFL draft and a fifth-round selection in 2024. At the time the Niners landed him, general manager John Lynch referred to him as a "force multiplier," the type of player who can elevate everyone around him.

That has been evident plenty in McCaffrey's time with the team but never more so than Sunday afternoon. McCaffrey broke Jerry Rice's record on the Niners' first drive, plunging into the end zone from 1 yard out.

"That means a lot," McCaffrey said. "Touchdowns are a lot of fun. Hopefully, we can keep it rolling."

On San Francisco's second possession, McCaffrey took a lateral from quarterback Brock Purdy, made a defender miss, hurdled another and raced to the end zone for an 18-yard score. Williams was standing nearby when McCaffrey made the play and immediately marched over to tell him, "Man, you're a baaaaaad boy."

McCaffrey added a 6-yard touchdown grab from Purdy and a 2-yard scoring run to set a personal best with four touchdowns in a game, tying him for second-most in franchise history in a single game. It was a performance so dominant that Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James posted on X: "CMC you're ABSOLUTELY RIDICULOUS!!!! MY GOODNESS."

McCaffrey's production hasn't been limited to this Sunday. Through the first four games, he has amassed a league-leading 600 yards and seven touchdowns from scrimmage (tied for the most in the NFL). He joined Hall of Famers Jim Brown (1963 ad 1958) and Emmitt Smith (1995) as the only players in NFL history with at least 600 scrimmage yards and seven touchdowns in their first four games of the season.

Since McCaffrey became the starter for the Niners on Oct. 30, 2022, he has played in 14 regular-season games. He has 1,748 scrimmage yards in those games (all of which were wins). That number leads the NFL and is the second-most yards from scrimmage during a 14-game winning streak, trailing only Terrell Davis (1,849 in 1997-98), the Hall of Fame Denver Broncos running back who played with McCaffrey's father, Ed, on those teams, for most scrimmage yards by a player during a 14-game win streak.

"I'm not sure on the whole rest of the league right now but I thought he played like [an MVP] last year when he was here," coach Kyle Shanahan said. "Christian's so awesome, he helps us win every time he's out there, but when you've got a guy who can do everything, you can always have unbelievable stats, but he shares that with a lot of other guys and we do whatever it takes to win. So, that's to me the thing that would make it the hardest for him, just stats and just how it works out."

One other potential obstacle in McCaffrey's MVP pursuit might be his own teammate: Purdy. While McCaffrey was running through the Cardinals on Sunday, Purdy barely missed through the air, finishing 20-of-21 for 283 yards and a touchdown for a passer rating of 134.6. He added a rushing score.

Purdy made a little history as well, as his 95.2% completion rate is the highest in 49ers history and the fourth-highest by any quarterback attempting at least 20 passes in NFL history. Drew Brees' 96.7% mark set in 2019 remains the NFL record.

"He was great," Shanahan said. "He was almost perfect ... hung in there, made some big throws. A lot of times, that defense, they don't give you the big throws, so you kind of got to pick them apart. He was very efficient at doing that. And when he had his opportunities for the big ones, he saw it right and made the right throws and our guys came down with them."

Purdy, who is closing in on seven months since he had the torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow repaired, said he wasn't aware he had missed only one throw until after the clock expired.

When Purdy reflected on his day, he harped on that one that got away, a misfire to McCaffrey in the flat on a third-and-24 from Arizona's 46 with 10:52 left in the third quarter.

"Honestly, I'm still mad about what I missed to Christian," Purdy said. "He broke out. He was open. I should have hit him and then we would've been in field goal range. That is something that I'm going to have to learn from and wish I could've had back."

Purdy hasn't had many of those so far this year. Going into Sunday night's game, Purdy leads the NFL in QBR (84.8), is eighth in passing yards (1,019), second in yards per attempt (9.1), third in completion percentage (72.3%) and is one of three starting quarterbacks not to throw an interception.

Beyond that, the Niners are 9-0 in Purdy's regular-season starts, the fourth-most consecutive wins by a quarterback to begin his career in the Super Bowl era.

"I think you can just go down the list of what makes a quarterback good and he checks every box," McCaffrey said. "And then he has all the intangibles, so that would be phenomenal. He brings a kind of swagger and energy every day that is fun to be around. He's quiet but he's very confident. He expressed that in the way he plays."

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