SANTA CLARA, Calif. — As they sat in a meeting the night before they took on the Las Vegas Raiders, a handful of San Francisco 49ers were sitting in the back of the room as the coaching staff ran through their opening plays.
As coach Kyle Shanahan walked his offense through one of the plays, he began ticking off quarterback Brock Purdy‘s reads. First, it was running back Christian McCaffrey on a choice route. If McCaffrey wasn’t open, Purdy was supposed to look to tight end George Kittle running a similar route on the other side. As Shanahan rattled off the options, receiver Brandon Aiyuk couldn’t help but turn to receivers coach Leonard Hankerson and wideout Deebo Samuel and shake his head.
“I said, ‘Ain’t nobody going to be able to stop us,'” Aiyuk said. “It’s really on us. We’ve got too many dudes. I feel bad for anybody who has got to game plan against us.”
In theory, Aiyuk’s observation about the skill-position talent the Niners have has never been more true than it will be on Saturday when they open the NFC playoffs against the Seattle Seahawks (4:30 p.m. ET, Levi’s Stadium, Fox). That’s because, for only the fourth time since acquiring McCaffrey on Oct. 20, the Niners should have their full arsenal of offensive weapons available with Samuel and running back Elijah Mitchell back at full strength after knocking off some rust last week.
On paper, it’s one of the most dangerous collections of skill talent in the league. That’s evident in the fact that the Niners finished in the top five of the NFL in offensive efficiency, expected points added and yards per play. The 49ers are one of nine teams with four players (Kittle, Aiyuk, McCaffrey, Samuel) to post 750-plus scrimmage yards (no team had five) and one of three teams (along with the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles) to have at least three players — Kittle, Aiyuk and McCaffrey — to post 750-plus scrimmage yards and eight touchdowns in a season. Those three are also the first 49ers trio since 1998 to score at least eight touchdowns in a season.
When the Niners acquired McCaffrey, many outside observers wondered how they were going to make it work with only one football to go around. For those inside the San Francisco locker room, though, no such doubts materialized.
“I think the ultimate goal is to win,” McCaffrey said. “And this team, when you look at the roster, there’s guys all over the place who are elite and the best at what they do. So, you’ve got to kill your ego. It ain’t about one person. It’s about the team and winning, and when you have guys who are doing their job all the time whether the ball comes their way or not, it makes football fun. It makes winning fun. We don’t care about fantasy football, we don’t care about statistics, we want to win, and you can really feel that in the locker room.”
In late November, the Niners gave the NFL a glimpse of their firepower when they defeated the Arizona Cardinals 38-10 in Mexico City. That night, McCaffrey and Samuel posted 106 and 94 scrimmage yards, respectively, while Aiyuk and Kittle scored two touchdowns apiece. It was a nearly ideal performance in which everybody got to eat but it also made the Niners realize that not every game would be that way.
On the plane ride home, a few of the Niners’ key skill position players discussed that very thing, recognizing that individual sacrifices were necessary to make room for the much larger team goal.
“For sure there’s a lot of mouths to feed,” Aiyuk said. “When you’ve got great players, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a great player that didn’t want to get the football. But one of our conversations on the plane that we had was just understanding what the mission is now. When you have a team like that, the mission isn’t individual. That’s a losing team, everybody for themselves type of thing … There’s a much bigger picture and everybody understands that.”
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the Niners’ acquisition of McCaffrey jumpstarted a 10-game winning streak that sewed up an NFC West title and the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs. And while San Francisco’s collective willingness to set aside personal statistical goals for the team has done wonders for their record, the onus still falls on coach Kyle Shanahan and his staff to recognize the opportunities that talent is creating for other players and put them in the best position to succeed.
With Samuel and Mitchell back and all of those options at his disposal, Shanahan said he doesn’t want to stray from what he’s always done, but he does want to try to make sure everyone is involved and engaged.
“Just keep doing it the same way we’ve done it when they have been in or when they haven’t been in,” Shanahan said. “We balance it out, we spread it around, we see how it ends up at the end of the game, but you never go in saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to just get this guy the ball this much or that guy.’ You have a game plan and we have opportunities to spread it around a lot, and then you just see how the game unfolds. You see how they’re defending people and that usually takes care of itself.”
Multiple Niners have said they can feel a bit more open space since McCaffrey arrived, as defenses work to try to slow him down. In addition, the Niners are seeing roughly 6% more man coverage from opponents since Purdy became the starter in Week 13.
During their 10-game win streak, the Niners averaged 30.5 points per game and 373.1 yards per game. At those rates over the course of the season, the 49ers would have finished first in scoring and fifth in yards. If those numbers continue, there should be enough production for everybody to remain happy. But that’s sure to be the case so long as the 49ers continue to ring up numbers in the only stat they truly care about: the win column.
“I think everybody has the same mindset that all we want to do is win a Super Bowl,” Kittle said. “If Christian is getting 20 carries and we’re not throwing the ball very much, hey, that’s awesome. As long as we’re winning. The good news is we have really good players at every position, so whoever is making those plays for us, they’re going to make plays for us to win.”