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When Jerick McKinnon signed a four-year, $30 million contract with the 49ers before the 2018 season, he figured to be the team’s starting running back for the foreseeable future. A week before the season started, McKinnon tore his ACL in a non-contact situation.
McKinnon’s first year lost, the hope and expectation was he would be able to get healthy in time for the 2019 campaign. But the 49ers made the mistake of taking him off the physically unable to perform list and he continued to have setbacks, requiring a PRP injection, having to rest for multiple weeks, and having another “flare-up” requiring surgery after he returned.
Again, McKinnon’s season — and maybe his on-field career with the 49ers — came to an end. The signing of Tevin Coleman proved to be a necessity rather than luxury and means, given McKinnon’s hefty salary, that the team will cut McKinnon before June 1 of next year. He’ll still be due $4 million in bonuses, but the 49ers would save on the rest of his salary.
But on Saturday, McKinnon was back with his teammates, having recently returned after about four months of rehab. Despite being unable to provide help on the field, he hasn’t lost his tactical acumen or knowledge of how the Vikings’ linebackers like to play.
There’s no way to know exactly how much McKinnon’s advice paid dividends, but the 49ers’ 47 rushing attempts for 186 yards and two touchdowns bodes in his favor.
“I just told the running backs how the linebackers were going to play,” said McKinnon, a Viking from 2014-17. “That was the biggest thing, helping out any way I can, not being able to physically help. But any little piece of information I could provide on my former team, that’s just what I was doing.”
As he put it, watching the 27-10 Divisional Round was a flashback to Dec. 25.
“It was like Christmas,” McKinnon said. “It was a game I’ve been waiting on. I wasn’t able to play last year. I wasn’t able to play this year, but I knew my brothers would get it done, so it was a dream come true that we came out on top.”
McKinnon said the most difficult part of this season was his time away from the team. Those roughly four months were spent at the Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine in Pensacola, Fla., rehabbing the right knee that has shelved his career for the past two seasons.
“It was rough. It was rough being away from the team,” McKinnon said. “These are the guys you put in countless hours in with, day, night, all that stuff. So to be back around the guys and be around the camaraderie, just a love and all that, it’s great to be back.”
Those dark times were brightened, McKinnon said, by watching the success of his teammates. Though he was isolated from the team for more than half the season, he said his inspiration came from watching them win.
“I mean, man, just watching these guys every week. I was rehabbing away,” McKinnon said. “On the weekends, on Sundays, just watching these guys come out and perform. That’s what really kept me going, kept me motivated, kept me driving, just watching these dudes.”
While it may be difficult for some people outside the organization to imagine for a player who’s never actually played a regular-season game for the 49ers, McKinnon appreciated Saturday’s victory as much as anyone in the locker room.
And though he’s sidelined, he has the same partly cliche, but genuine sense that the win is another box checked in the 49ers’ Super Bowl aspirations.
“It means a lot,” McKinnon said. “We’ve accomplished so much throughout the season, start to finish. The thing about it is it just keeps going and just another milestone reached. And I know whoever we play next week, it’s going to be a tough game, but we know that, and we’re going to enjoy it. But at the end of the day, we’re going to get back to the drawing board next week.”