JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Based on how 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey stepped to the podium after Sunday’s resounding win over the Jaguars, it would have been difficult to tell that he had just narrowly missed a chance to own the NFL record for consecutive games with a touchdown all to himself.
Instead, McCaffrey actually had some material ready for the inevitable questions that followed his 17-game touchdown streak ending on the same day as his team’s three-game losing streak with a 34-3 victory against the Jaguars.
“I suck,” McCaffrey said, a smile creeping across his face. “Everyone else on the team scored. Except me.”
McCaffrey, of course, was joking, but the Niners didn’t treat his touchdown streak as a laughing matter. Even with a big second-half lead, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan remained resolute in his efforts to get McCaffrey into the end zone for an 18th consecutive game so he could surpass Lenny Moore and own the record alone.
With a 31-point lead in the fourth quarter, Shanahan began removing some of his starters, including left tackle Trent Williams, who has been nursing a right ankle injury. He also took McCaffrey out for eight consecutive plays, seven of which were runs by backup Elijah Mitchell.
Once the Niners got to Jacksonville’s 29, however, McCaffrey went back in. He ripped off a 19-yard run in which he almost shook loose for a touchdown, then got two more carries and two more passes thrown to him.
Alas, the final attempt from Jacksonville’s 5 — a throw in the right flat from backup quarterback Sam Darnold on fourth-and-goal — fell incomplete and was short of the goal line anyway. The Niners got the ball back later, but didn’t want to risk injury to McCaffrey any further.
“Eighteen games in a row is a big record,” Shanahan said. “So, if we had a chance to do that, I was going to try to do it for him. It’s a little nerve racking. The last thing I wanted to do is get him hurt. … I wish we could have done it for him, but I think that was a pretty big accomplishment just to do it for 17 games straight.”
Entering Sunday, it had been 34 days since the Niners last won a game, a span that included heartbreaking road losses to the Browns and Vikings and a 31-17 home defeat to the Bengals.
Those losses and the bye came after a five-game winning streak to open the season that had many believing the Niners were not just a favorite, but the favorite to win the Super Bowl.
The string of disappointing defeats brought plenty of scrutiny about what’s wrong with the Niners. Various issues such as costly late turnovers from quarterback Brock Purdy (and early ones from McCaffrey), the lack of consistent pass rush and tackling on defense and missed kicks came to the forefront.
Just in the past two weeks, the Niners traded a 2023 third-round compensatory pick for defensive end Chase Young, and defensive coordinator Steve Wilks moved from the coach’s booth to the field level as part of the team’s efforts to right the ship.
On Thursday, wideout Deebo Samuel, who returned from a shoulder injury Sunday, said Monday’s practice felt like “Day 1 of training camp” with how fresh and fired up the team was about the chance to get its season back on track. It was a big reason why Williams played on his injured ankle despite being at about 75% to 80% health, per his estimation.
“I think it was huge,” Williams said. “Losing four straight, I think a lot of people would have wanted to turn the panic lights on or could have had our proverbial back against the wall. I think coming out and getting this win on the road against a really good team that’s been rolling, I think is definitely what we needed.”
While McCaffrey didn’t score, he did chip in 142 scrimmage yards. Purdy also had one of his most productive days, going 19-of-26 for 296 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
The defense, meanwhile, held the Jaguars to just 221 yards, sacked quarterback Trevor Lawrence five times and came up with four takeaways. The defense also had a touchdown called back when the sideline was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for going onto the field during cornerback Ambry Thomas’ fumble return.
Two of the people who were on the field were rookie linebacker Dee Winters and safety Ji’Ayir Brown.
Under normal circumstances, Shanahan would have been angry with the youngsters, but he couldn’t because he, too, was on the field.
Like McCaffrey, Shanahan had no trouble poking fun at himself.
“That was strategic so we could let the offense do it,” Shanahan said. “I was mad at myself, and I thought the play was over. We couldn’t see and everyone jumped up and so when it happens, you’re getting out there to start to congratulate people coming back and they’re not coming back to congratulate us. … We know you can’t go on the field. I personally thought the play was over. They ran right by us, and it was a very unfortunate but a good learning experience for our team.”
It was that kind of day for the 49ers when a lot went right, little went wrong and, for the first time in more than a month, they felt like the team that started the season looking every bit the part of a juggernaut.
As McCaffrey walked off the dais, he was greeted by linebacker Fred Warner, who offered a hug and some words of support, telling the running back, “Sorry Christian, but we won the game.”
It was a message McCaffrey had already received.
“It means a lot to me for them to keep me in at the end of the game there and try to give me that record,” McCaffrey said. “But hey, I’ll take a huge win.”