Christian McCaffrey injury is a warning to 49ers about not resting players

There are few reasons for the 49ers to subject the bulk of their star players to injury by playing in a mostly meaningless Week 18 game.

San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey (23)
San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey (23) / Harry How/GettyImages

Kyle Shanahan said he isn't sure about resting his starters in the regular-season finale, but Christian McCaffrey's injury should be a strong suggestion.

Rest versus rust. That's a topic many a team that already clinched as much as it possibly can in the playoffs will debate when it comes to resting starters and star players in what essentially is a meaningless game before the postseason begins.

And it happens each year with usually one week of the regular season left.

For the top-seeded San Francisco 49ers, they've clinched a first-round bye over the Wild Card round and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Even if they lose to the visiting Los Angeles Rams in Week 18 and fall to 11-5, it would change nothing.

Compounding that, the Niners are dealing with some notable injuries at the moment, too, especially to one of their MVP candidates, running back Christian McCaffrey.

McCaffrey was pulled from San Francisco's Week 17 road win over the Washington Commanders because of a calf injury. And while he was listed as questionable to return, he never did. Sure, after the game, he mentioned he was going to be OK and it wasn't a serious injury.

However, given McCaffrey's importance to the 49ers offense (MVP candidacy aside, having over 2,000 all-purpose yards should illustrate the point), unnecessary risk isn't something head coach Kyle Shanahan should flirt with.

And with McCaffrey, he isn't. The league leader in rushing will rest up in Week 18, per the head coach.

McCaffrey isn't the only case study, though.

Kyle Shanahan unsure if 49ers will rest starters vs. Rams in Week 18

Speaking to reporters on New Year's Day, Shanahan didn't commit one way or another to resting his other starters, and here's what he had to say:

"No one’s set right now. I’m still discussing that with coaches and stuff and just trying to figure it all out, what’s best for us. I’ll probably discuss it with those [starting] players also. Not as many as you would think. It is really a hard thing to do and it’s not always the best thing to do, too."

Smart move by Shanahan not to reveal his hand too early. After all, even though the game is mostly meaningless, it's still an NFC West showdown against a rival LA squad with another rival, Sean McVay, as head coach.

And Shanahan would love to extend the Niners' regular-season win streak another full year, one that dates all the way back to 2018 when Los Angeles last won such a bout.

Yet McCaffrey's situation illustrates the bigger long-term question: Should Shanahan give most or all of his starters some field time on Sunday so they can avoid whatever rust may come their way, or is it best to avoid any unforeseen injury entirely by fielding a B-team of backups and reserves?

Shanahan was vague on that, too:

"We’ve got a game this week on Sunday. When you give guys the game off, practice changes too. That can end up hurting guys a lot and you end up just developing bad habits. I’ve seen it cost a lot of teams."

Again, smart. No reason to tell the press what he's going to do.

But there's a balance in there as well, and that's the point Shanahan needs to make eventually.

49ers can play starters vs. Rams (but not for long)

Thankfully, it's not an either-or call for Shanahan on playing starters. He can field some of them, all of them or none of them (mostly). Shanahan can also wholly rest some players against Los Angeles while allowing some other starters to play a drive or two before they, too, are benched.

And he can treat Sunday's matchup as a glorified preseason game, one in which his starters see a bit of a field but then exit after playing a handful of drives, a quarter or nothing more than the first half.

That's the proper approach.

Sure, Shanahan wants to avoid the rust association while also dodging any problems associated with practice changes and whatnot. But he also doesn't want to subject any of his key players to unnecessary injury.

McCaffrey, who is such a vital part of the offense and is now dealing with an injury, is the friendly reminder of what playing key players in an otherwise pointless setting can lead to.

The (potential B-team) Niners and Rams kick off on Sunday, Jan. 7 at 4:25 p.m. ET from Levi's Stadium.

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