SANTA CLARA – No sight captured the 49ers’ upbeat mood this week more than Christian McCaffrey doing four cartwheels in Thursday’s warmups, synchronized to the song “Come on Home,” by The Lijadu Sisters.
McCaffrey pointed to the practice field’s DJ booth, pantomimed the piano intro, then showed his athleticism in yet another dimension.
As coach Kyle Shanahan said Wednesday: “Christian is the best player I’ve ever been around without the ball in his hand. Just the little things he does that are so obsessive.”
Shanahan wasn’t referring to cartwheels but rather McCaffrey’s ability to carry out a fake on the last of Deebo Samuel’s three touchdowns Sunday, and McCaffrey’s ability to block a blitzing defender on another 49ers’ touchdown in their 42-19 rout at Philadelphia.
McCaffrey has led the NFL in rushing since the season opened, and his 1,032 yards mark the 49ers’ first 1,000-yard rushing campaign since Frank Gore’s 2014 finale. The 49ers’ leading receiver: McCaffrey with 51 catches (429 yards, five touchdowns).
“It’s coached to play without the ball,” McCaffrey said. “(Running backs coach) Bobby Turner takes a lot pride in our room playing without the ball, whether it’s blocking or faking or blocking downfield when someone makes a catch. It’s just a point of emphasis we go over all the time.
“It’s not always a big deal, but when it is, it’s huge. A good fake can be worth two blocks if you get enough people.”
Less than two months ago, McCaffrey sustained an oblique injury, keeping him from the 49ers’ fourth-quarter comeback attempt in their first loss at Cleveland on Oct. 15. He spent two weeks on the injury report, came off it after the Week 9 bye, and he’s since avoided serious injuries. He’s played 81 percent of the offensive snaps this season.
That durability is extra valuable this week, as Elijah Mitchell (knee) is doubtful to play Sunday as McCaffrey’s top understudy when the 49ers (9-3) host the Seattle Seahawks (6-6). In a 31-13 Thanksgiving night win in Seattle, McCaffrey ran for 114 yards and two touchdowns, and he had five catches for 25 yards.
Touchdowns and wins have accompanied McCaffrey’s presence since arriving in last October’s trade from the Carolina Panthers. Even though he was a Heisman Trophy runner-up at Stanford and the No. 8 overall pick in the 2017 draft by Carolina, McCaffrey still plays with the grit of a college walk-on, according to Shanahan, who was a walk-on himself 25 years ago as a wide receiver at Duke.
“I was insecure that I was going to make it so I had to be that way. Christian is going to make it and he’s going to be pretty damn good at whatever he does,” Shanahan said, “but just the way he goes about it, I mean, he would tell you the same in how hard he is on himself.
“We went half-speed on Wednesday. He came up to me in practice and wanted to make sure I knew that he’s not full-go right now and it will look better in a couple of days. ‘Thanks for telling me, we know it will look better.’ That’s just how his mindset is. He knows there’s always more in the tank, and when you’re as successful as he is and you see how he plays and he still believes he can raise it to another level, it’s really fun as a coach.”
McCaffrey’s off-ball smarts carried over the sideline last game when he conferred with Brock Purdy to set up a 33-yard, third-and-3 reception after halftime, setting up a Samuel touchdown for a 21-6 lead.
“He’s the one that came up and told me what he expects and I trusted him,” Purdy said. “So once that third down came around, he made his move and then sure enough went up the field, got the backer to bite and it was a huge third-down conversion, so that was props to him.”
SEAHAWKS’ QB QUESTIONABLE
Quarterback Geno Smith, who’s started all 30 of the Seahawks’ games since last season, was listed as questionable for Sunday’s game because of a groin injury. Smith is less than three weeks removed from an injury to his triceps/elbow region.
Also listed as questionable by the Seahawks: running backs Ken Walker III (oblique) and Zach Charbonnet (knee); defensive tackle Jarran Reed (hamstring); wide receiver Dee Eskridge (ribs); linebacker Jordyn Brooks (ankle); and, cornerback Tre Brown (heel). Eskridge had a 66-yard kick return to set up a field goal last meeting and Brooks provided the Seahawks’ touchdown on a 12-yard interception return in the third quarter.
Scoring touchdowns on six consecutive drives was startling last Sunday in Philadelphia, except to those responsible among the 49ers.
“We’ve been in the offense. We understand what Kyle wants,” tight end George Kittle said of the seventh-year head coach. “Kyle knows what our strengths are. He does a really good job putting his players in the best position to succeed.”
The Seahawks (6-6) surely agree as they visit the 49ers (9-3) on Sunday, only 2 ½ weeks after Shahanan’s club won 31-13 in Seattle. The 49ers are coming off a 42-19 road rout of the NFC-leading Eagles, their eighth double-digit win this season.
“Once you’re in this offense for a while, you understand it,” added Kittle, a seventh-year veteran. “There’s not so much, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t understand these play calls.’ There’s less confusion. Everyone is on it, because they’ve been in it for a while.”
Not everyone has been around for years. Not that it seems to matter. Purdy and McCaffrey are in their first full seasons as 49ers starters, and they’re leading the NFL at their respective positions.
Listed out of practice were defensive tackle Arik Armstead (foot, knee), tight end Ross Dwelley (ankle) and wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud (rib). Right guard Spencer Burford (knee) and cornerback Darrell Luter (hamstring) are doubtful.
Javon Kinlaw figures to replace Armstead in the starting lineup. As was the case last game against Seattle, Jon Feliciano will fill in for Burford if the latter can’t play.
Either Jeremy McNichols or Ty Davis-Price figures to be called up from the practice squad, more so to help on special teams than at running back. Defensive tackles T.Y. McGill or Spencer Waege also could get elevated, as might safety Tayler Hawkins, the latter two of whom were scout team players of the week along with McNichols.
Brandon Aiyuk has a touchdown catch in a career-high four consecutive games. If he extends that streak Sunday, he’d be the first 49ers wide receiver to do so in five straight since Terrell Owens in 2001, although tight end Vernon Davis had a five-game string in 2013.
Aiyuk is 73 yards shy of reaching the 1,000-yard mark in back-to-back seasons, a feat last accomplished by Anquan Boldin in 2013-14.
By scoring his 18th career rushing touchdown Sunday, Deebo Samuel matched Bobby Mitchell’s mark for most rushing touchdowns by a wide receiver since 1960.