The 49ers paid a hefty price for Christian McCaffrey before the NFL trade deadline, and that’s exactly why some football enthusiasts were surprised to see the All-Pro running back replaced by teammate Elijah Mitchell in crunch time of San Francisco’s Week 10 win over the Los Angeles Chargers.
Mitchell, who was playing in his first game since suffering a knee injury in San Francisco’s season-opener, led the 49ers with 89 rushing yards on 18 carries. He was handed the ball three straight times in the red zone with the 49ers leading by a field goal and less than two minutes remaining. Mitchell picked up six yards on the three consecutive goal-line carries before the 49ers kicked a field goal to extend their 22-16 advantage, which proved to be the final verdict.
“That kind of was our goal before the game started, was to have a goal to have about even carries (between McCaffrey and Mitchell), but you never know how the game goes,” Shanahan told reporters after the game, per NBC Sports. “And then at the end there when we were just trying to hammer it down, we were just feeling (Mitchell), so we kept him out there.”
Mitchell averaged a noteworthy 4.9 yards per carry with five of the team’s 12 first downs on the ground, but it nevertheless was a bit surprising to see McCaffrey on the sideline for three straight plays with the game on the line. San Francisco’s recent trade acquisition finished with 14 rushing attempts for 38 yards and scored a two-yard touchdown seven minutes earlier.
“When Elijah is healthy, he can run the ball. It doesn’t take him long,” Shanahan added of Mitchell, who rushed for 963 yards on a 4.7 average during his rookie season in 2021. “We always want to see it for ourselves when he comes out in practice, but just seeing him Wednesday and Thursday and Friday, he looked ready to go and that was what we were hoping.”
It’s certainly not a bad situation to be in. Shanahan and the 49ers have a strong tandem of running backs with McCaffrey and Mitchell. But it’s fair to think what the Monday morning reaction would have been if San Francisco lost the game with McCaffrey taking in the three biggest snaps from the sideline.
The 5-4 49ers will return to the field as they take on the Arizona Cardinals in the Week 11 edition of “Monday Night Football.”