Sports

The NFL’s Trade of the Year Is Bizarre, Reckless—and Maybe Brilliant

One rationale for the move says “it’s now or never.” But the other just says “never.”

McCaffrey in his Panthers uniform on the field running with the ball tucked in his right arm
Christian McCaffrey during the Carolina Panthers’ 24–10 loss to the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium on Sunday, in Inglewood, California. Harry How/Getty Images

Blockbuster football trades are rare in the middle of the season, but the NFL got a whopper on Thursday night, when the San Francisco 49ers got Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey for a minor ransom of what an executive might call “draft capital.” The 49ers parted with their second-, third-, and fourth-round picks in the league’s 2023 draft, plus a fifth-rounder the following year. The move makes it official that the Panthers, who already fired coach Matt Rhule, are in a rebuilding and quasi-tanking phase. It brings McCaffrey back to the Bay Area, where he was an all-time college star at Stanford. He has followed up his electric run in Palo Alto with a similarly dynamic showing in five and a half pro seasons, and the 49ers are placing a big bet that he can produce a few more.

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It’s a fascinating deal for the 49ers, at turns worth praising and gawking at in disbelief. They are just 3–3, but that’s good enough for first in the NFC West at the moment. FiveThirtyEight’s projection model gives them a two-in-three chance to make the playoffs, at which point anything would be possible. They are being aggressive about improving those chances, and it’s impossible not to like that. They’re also taking a risk that might be even more unnecessary than the term “completely unnecessary” lets on, something they should understand better than perhaps any other team. The spine-tingling and head-scratching elements can both exist at the same time, and whether the McCaffrey trade looks like a masterstroke, a disaster, or (probably not) something in between depends on which lens one uses.

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On the surface, it’s little more than an old-fashioned football trade in which the buyer and seller are responding naturally to their circumstances. The Panthers could have finished in the NFL’s basement this year (and probably next) with or without McCaffrey, so they picked “without” and decided to stock up on draft picks that have a solid chance to become good, young players. McCaffrey was not healthy in 2020 or 2021, and the possibility of more injuries made it even less likely that he’d factor into the next good Panthers team. On the other hand, the 49ers are a likely playoff team that now has a marginally better chance to win in January. Championships get won at the margins, and tomorrow promises nothing, so general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan have decided on a full send.

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The position McCaffrey plays, combined with the 49ers’ unique circumstances in recent seasons and this one, is what makes this acquisition either a great idea or a really, really bad one. The rationale behind trading for McCaffrey, or thinking it’s a bad idea, comes down to storytelling. And the 49ers can tell two stories. One says “now or never,” and the other says “never.” Choose your own adventure.

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In either case, the story has to start with one’s view of running backs, as an institution, in 2022. There’s a common view around the NFL media-industrial complex that running backs “don’t matter.” That’s a flippant way of putting it, and it’s not exactly what teams seem to believe, but here is what most of them have shown they do believe: Running backs are often more interchangeable than players at other positions. They are largely products of circumstance—their offensive lines, how the defense lines up, what other threats on the offense draw attention—and do not tend to break open games on their own. The NFL has validated these concepts by slowly chasing tailbacks out of the first round of the draft (none were taken in 2022) and extinguishing free-agent megadeals for them. (Last year’s maximum guarantee for one was $9 million.) The few recent cases of productive backs getting contract extensions have usually been bad for their teams.

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Shanahan’s 49ers have been poster children for running back roster management, for good and ill. Since Shanahan took over in 2017, the 49ers’ leading rusher in four of six seasons has been a former undrafted free agent: Matt Breida, Raheem Mostert, and this year’s leader Jeff Wilson, twice. Last year’s leading 49ers rusher was Elijah Mitchell, a sixth-round pick who hasn’t played since Week 1 this year. On a yards-per-carry basis, they’ve all been more productive than Shanahan’s other leading rusher, Carlos Hyde, a second-round pick who was on the roster when the head coach arrived. In short, the Niners have found running back value under rocks. They’ve also failed to find it with more significant investments. They spent a 2021 third-round pick on Trey Sermon, whom they cut after a year. They spent a 2022 third-rounder on Tyrion Davis-Price, who has 14 carries for 33 yards in just two appearances in his rookie year. As the Ringer’s Benjamin Solak notes, the McCaffrey trade means the 49ers have invested six draft picks since 2021 in tailbacks, all but one of them in the first four rounds.

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You can interpret this history in one of two ways.

One is that the 49ers should know as well as anyone that plowing valuable resources into the running back room is, in general, a bad idea. You can find competent NFL running backs while thrifting, so why give up a premium? The other interpretation is interesting, though. Instead, you could look again at the 49ers in recent seasons. They’ve had good running backs, but the Jeff Wilsons and Raheem Mosterts of the world are not the same as its Christian McCaffreys. This is a different guy, as is obvious in just a few seconds of watching his highlights. He’s a two-time All-Pro who has put up some gobsmacking numbers at different points. Shanahan and Lynch have a team that can make the playoffs. They’ve lost a Super Bowl and an NFC Championship in the past three seasons, the kind of close misses that call for a little push to get over the top. So, who better than a player with a decorated history of going over the top?

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Other situational elements might have screamed at the Niners to go for it. For a few years, they have reportedly explored trading their expensive, handsome, and aggressively average quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo. They spent the No. 3 pick in the 2021 draft on another QB, Trey Lance, who’s more athletic, has a rocket arm, and opens up more plays than the statuesque Garoppolo. But Garoppolo kept the starting gig in 2021, aided by injury problems for Lance. After an off-season of trade rumors, the team kept Garoppolo again this year. Lance won the job but was lost for the season in Week 2 (after an ankle injury), so the unkillable Garoppolo is back behind center yet again. He has been roughly what he always is: fine. He’s sixth in the NFL in adjusted yards per attempt and eighth in traditional passer rating. He’s 23rd in ESPN’s total quarterback rating (QBR) and 19th in Pro Football Focus grade, two metrics that account for more of a QB’s performance than his passing stats. While Garoppolo treads respectable water, the San Fran defense is dominant, leading the league in both yards allowed and expected points added per play. The 49ers were not going to make a midseason QB upgrade. Teams with good NFL QBs do not deal them midseason. If they wanted to level up, the offense was the place to look, and McCaffrey was a good answer.

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It’s fraught, though. Oh, is it ever fraught. The bulk of McCaffrey’s NFL production came in 2018 and 2019, something like a decade ago in running back years. He played in three games in 2020 and seven in 2021. He hasn’t missed one in 2022, and his 5.7 yards per touch this year (like his 5.8 in his injury-shortened 2021) are right on track with his 5.9 to 6 at his peak. He’s ninth among running backs in that stat, and only one ahead of him (Cleveland’s Nick Chubb) has done it with a comparable usage load. When McCaffrey is on the field, he is both an engine and a menace. But “when he is on the field” would be a big qualifier even if he hadn’t spent so much recent time on the shelf. Running backs are piñatas.

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The downside is not about McCaffrey’s contract, which isn’t that big and has an easy enough out any time after this season. He’s been subject to the same market forces that have limited all running backs. But the 49ers don’t want that to be the discussion at all, at least not for a few years. If it is, it will mean that they incinerated valuable draft picks for a player who couldn’t help them enough. There’s a possibility that involves the 49ers going into next year without making another deep playoff run, with an again-injured McCaffrey, and with no rookie help coming for Lance in his first healthy NFL season. That would leave the 49ers not that far from getting lost in the NFL’s sauce, and this trade contributes to that potential.

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Were I the 49ers’ GM, I don’t think I’d have had the stomach to do it. There are too many pitfalls: the possibility that McCaffrey doesn’t stay healthy, or that he turns out to be Superman but it still isn’t enough for the team to sniff a Super Bowl again behind Garoppolo. It probably won’t work out exactly how the Niners want, for the simple reason that it only really works out for one Super Bowl winner each year, and the 49ers have done enough already that they want more than to win a playoff game or two. In that context, selling the farm for McCaffrey is reckless.

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But it is also the business the 49ers have chosen, and every champion had to do something that was at least a little bit dangerous. Last year’s Los Angeles Rams gave up an entire estate to get Matthew Stafford to play quarterback, betting that he’d be more in Southern California than he had been in Detroit. They were right. Stafford is a QB, and McCaffrey isn’t, and maybe that moves the 49ers from ambitiously aggressive to dumb. But that doesn’t mean they’re wrong. In the NFL’s upper crust, ridiculous is not necessarily a pejorative.

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