The San Francisco 49ers were scary good on offense in 2019. They ranked first in rushing touchdowns, second in rushing yards, second in scoring, fourth in total yards and fifth in third-down efficiency. The combination of skilled personnel and sublime play designs made them a nightmare for opponents. Consequently, if anyone has a reason to cry about them adding another elite playmaker this season, it would seem to be the defenders attempting to slow them. But in reality, it is the aforementioned playmaker who expects to shed some tears when the team opens the season against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday in Santa Clara.
Running back Jerick McKinnon's season stalled at the starting line in each of the past two years. After leaving the Minnesota Vikings as a free agent, he signed a four-year deal worth up to $30 million with San Francisco in the spring of 2018, eager to link up with Kyle Shanahan, a coach and play-caller known for designing offensive mismatches. However, McKinnon tore the ACL and damaged the meniscus in his right knee the week before the season opener that year, then missed the following season after the same knee required another operation.
The surgeries tested him physically, but the inability to practice or play haunted him mentally. McKinnon admits to experiencing dark moments, which, if you know him, is saying a lot while saying a little. He is known for being upbeat. A smile seems permanently etched on his face. He views each day as a blessing and a reason to give thanks. So when he says there were dark moments, it's a significant admission -- and why the opener Sunday will be so special to him.
It's not that Jet, as he is known to friends, ever took the game for granted; it's that he now knows how quickly it can be taken from you -- and what it takes to get it back.
"People on the outside won't fully get it," McKinnon said by phone. "To see a guy who hasn't played in two years, yeah, you can say he'll be excited and stuff. But words can't even describe what it'll be like to be back, to be honest.
"I ain't going to lie, I'll probably cry. It's been a long road, a long journey, with a lot of emotions throughout that journey. I'm going to be amped up to go, but I'm definitely going to soak it all in and not forget what I had to go through and to overcome to get to this point. Then I'll let all that stuff come out."
McKinnon was expected to be a focal point of the offense in 2018 after four seasons with the Vikings. San Francisco was coming off its third straight last-place finish in the NFC West and Shanahan was looking for impact performers as he entered Year 2 as head coach. The 49ers looked at the wide receivers in free agency but didn't feel their performances matched the asking price. So they turned their attention to McKinnon, a versatile playmaker they believed could be a starter and excel in space in the passing game.
The former college quarterback averaged 35.5 receptions a year with the Vikings and was coming off a season in which he caught 51 passes and gained 991 yards from scrimmage. His touches were relatively limited during his time in Minnesota -- he never had more than 159 carries or 51 receptions in a season -- but his quickness and agility made him a matchup nightmare for linebackers and safeties, sending Shanahan's beautiful football mind into overdrive.
"There's so many things I liked about him, just visualizing how I would use him and the stuff that we would do," Shanahan said at McKinnon's introductory press conference in 2018. "Even though there wasn't a ton of it, you still got to see him do some stuff that we do a lot. And whenever he did, he excelled a ton and looked very good at it."
The 49ers were coming off a season in which none of their running backs gained more than 350 receiving yards. Combined, they totaled just two touchdowns through the air. Shanahan anticipated a sharp upturn with McKinnon, but things went wrong from almost the start of training camp. First, he strained a calf and missed the final three games of the preseason, then tore his right ACL in practice eight days before the opener.
"I was kind of like, OK, it's one of those things that happens. Work hard like we always do and you'll get back," McKinnon recalled.
Except he didn't return right away. The knee never felt right as he rehabbed during the 2019 offseason, and the situation failed to improve during training camp. Finally it was determined that he would need another surgery -- and would miss another season.
"To find out there would be another surgery that was going to cost me another whole year, it was just like getting hit in the face and knocked down like a boxer," he said. "It's hard to describe the feeling the second time around when I was told I would miss the season. There was never any doubt [I'd get back]; it was more about figuring it out. The dark times were more about what's to come next and how is this going to play out?"
He leaned on family members as well as players who had faced similar injuries. He spoke to retired running back Garrison Hearst, he gleaned insight from former league MVP Adrian Peterson, now of the Detroit Lions, and he communicated with former Falcons receiver Brian Finneran, first via social media, then text messages.
"I told him, if he loves playing, to grind it out. That there will be dark days ahead, but if he's got people around him that he can count on and love him, he will be just fine -- that he has youth on his side," Finneran said. "I'm pretty sure I also told him, if a tall, slow wide receiver can pull it off, then an athlete like him will be just fine."
It was roughly four to five months into his second rehab when McKinnon began to trust. He was doing linear movements with his physical therapist in Pensacola, Florida, and felt no discomfort. At that point, he turned to his aide and smiled.
"Yeah," he said. "I'm back now."
There was incremental, and sometimes sudden, progress from there. The better he felt, the more he pushed himself and the more he wanted in his workouts. Trainer Rischad Whitfield has worked with McKinnon the last four years, including two months this offseason.
"When he's locked in, he's locked in," said Whitfield. "It's hard to stop him. He's going to outwork anybody. A healthy Jet McKinnon is a scary Jet McKinnon."
McKinnon is also motivated. As if he needed another log on his competitive fire, he and Whitfield consistently remind each other about a comment that came out of San Francisco in the offseason. Perhaps it was from a fan or a media member -- neither remembers the particular details -- but the gist of it was that McKinnon might be on the back end of the running back rotation.
"Me and him always talk about that -- 'Backend McKinnon,' " Whitfield said. "That ain't how we coming. Backend McKinnon, we keep that in the back of our mind that we've got to put pressure on everybody who wants it this year. It doesn't matter who's back there at running back, they've got to see him and teams really got to feel him this year."
The 49ers have a deep and talented backfield: Raheem Mostert ran for 772 yards and eight touchdowns, averaged 5.6 yards per carry and burned the Packers for 220 yards and four TDs in the NFC Championship Game last season. Tevin Coleman ran for 544 yards and six scores and had a 105-yard, two-TD game in the playoff opener against the Vikings. Jeff Wilson Jr. ran for 105 yards and four touchdowns on just 27 carries.
But none of them is the receiving threat that McKinnon is. The likelihood is that the Niners will start out using him in passing situations on third downs, but they're confident he can take snaps on earlier downs if necessary. McKinnon is not greedy, but he is eager to show what he can do.
"I never really missed a whole season, let alone two in a row," he said. "I don't know anything more motivating than getting knocked down to probably your lowest and then having to fight back. I'm just glad to be back, for real for real."