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Inman: Sam Darnold’s ‘great’ debut, plus 10 observations from 49ers’ flop

Inman: Sam Darnold’s ‘great’ debut, plus 10 observations from 49ers’ flop

LAS VEGAS — Did Sam Darnold come out looking best from the 49ers’ rather unsightly debut to the NFL’s preseason?

“I thought he did a great job,” coach Kyle Shanahan said after Sunday’s 34-7 defeat to the Las Vegas Raiders. “… We want to be careful with Sam  (playing among backups), but we also want him to play, too. Hopefully Sam will get a little more time next week.”

Thus, the expectation is that Darnold starts Saturday’s preseason game at Levi’s Stadium against the Denver Broncos.

What about the other options? Brock Purdy figures to idle until starting the regular-season opener. Trey Lance figures to rotate back into the No. 2 role Saturday. And Brandon Allen hopes to rejoin the team Thursday, after racing postgame to Florida, where his wife, Sarah, is expected to give birth today to their second son.

Darnold did not necessarily wow in his 49ers’ debut. He also did not turn the ball over or panic in the pocket. He looked composed as a sixth-year veteran, after previous stops with the New York Jets and the Carolina Panthers. Those traits won’t give him the No. 2 job, but when combined with a discouraging outing from Lance, that bolsters Darnold’s stock.

“I feel I managed things well,” Darnold said. “As a team, we just need to play better. As an offense, we need to operate a little bit better. You put a lot of that on yourself as a quarterback.”

Darnold completed 5-of-8 passes for 84 yards in three drives, and those didn’t end with points but rather a failed fourth-and-1 quarterback sneak, a lost fumble by rookie tight end Cameron Latu, and a 58-yard field-goal miss by rookie Jake Moody.

After Lance worked the first half (four sacks, 10-of-15 passing for 112 yards, one touchdown), Darnold entered after Vegas’ halftime act and promptly moved the 49ers from their 5-yard line to the Raiders’ 31. Along the way were completions to Ronnie Bell (37 yards), Isiah Winstead (7), Tay Martin (15).

“When you’re kind out of rhythm as an offense, to get back on track, you find completions and a way to move the chains,” Darnold said. “We did that a little but then we stopped ourselves on a couple of drives.”

The 49ers’ quarterback drama isn’t close to stopping anytime soon. Moving on to 10 things that caught my eyes and ears:

1. MOODY’S MINDSET

Let the record reflect that Jake Moody’s actually made his first kick, albeit a point-after attempt for a 7-7 tie. Then he missed his two field-goal attempts, from 40 and 58 yards, each of which followed ice-the-rookie-kicker timeouts by the Raiders.

Moody said those misses were learning experiences, and that he’ll prepare a different routine during such timeouts. Best of all, he’s already moving past the dud of a debut, noting: “I was hoping for one more (attempt) to prove those were flukes.”

While Shanahan may have been irked at the Raiders’ tactics more so in dragging out this game and trip (after a six-day stay), he is not concerned about Moody, a third-round draft pick. “It’s unfortunate because there’s pressure when everyone is looking. He missed those two today but he’s been great in practice,” Shanahan said. “I was just excited to attempt a long one, which was fun, until it was missed. He’s been great. He handles himself well. No issues with me.”

2. BRIGADE OF BACKUPS

The 49ers did not suit up any of their projected starters for the Sept. 10 regular-season opener at Pittsburgh. Precautionary intents aside, their work was accomplished in last week’s joint practices at the Raiders’ facility in Henderson.

“I didn’t enjoy that game by any means,” Shanahan said. “But a lot of guys got a lot of valuable reps and gives them a chance to make our team, and it gives us a chance to coach them up.”

The starting offense: Lance; running back Jordan Mason; wide receivers Ronnie Bell and Chris Conley; tight ends Ross Dwelley and Charlie Woerner; and an offensive line featuring (left to right) Jaylon Moore, Jason Poe, Jon Feliciano, Nick Zakelj and Matt Pryor.

The starting defense: Ends Clelin Ferrell and Kerry Hyder; tackles Javon Kinlaw and Kevin Givens; linebackers Marcelino McCrary-Ball and Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles; cornerbacks Isaiah Oliver, Ambry Thomas and Sam Womack; safeties Tayler Hawkins and Ji’Ayir Brown.

3. CORNERBACK EFFORTS

Jimmy Garoppolo did not play against his former team, as expected, so Aidan O’Connell and Chase Garbers went forth and completed 18-of-23 passes for 152 yards with two touchdowns. The 49ers did not record an interception, nor has any cornerback come up with one since camp opened.

But the 49ers were encouraged by Thomas’ play, and Shanahan noted the progress the third-year player has made since spring workouts.

More concerning was their nickel back spot. They signed Isaiah Oliver to fill that sneaky important role of covering slot receivers — Jimmie Ward and K’Waun Williams used to do it — and Oliver got beat for a 9-yard reception just before halftime. Can’t you just envision the Steelers’ Kenny Pickett and the Rams’ Matthew Stafford beating the 49ers’ pass rush with quick passes to the slot receivers in Weeks 1 and 2, when the 49ers open on the road?

4. BELL’S MIXED DEBUT

Ronnie Bell, the last member of this year’s 49ers draft class, offset some encouraging plays with some concerning gaffes. As a punt returner — a role vacated by Ray-Ray McCloud’s wrist surgery — Bell appeared to briefly lose the football before recovering it when hit at the 49res’ 14-yard line on his first return; he gained no yards on his second.

Now, Bell’s 15-yard, jet-sweep run opened the 49ers’ touchdown drive, and he had a team-high 58 yards on three catches, but he also had Allen’s first pass go through his hands to result in a fourth-quarter interception. Bell averaged 19 yards on three kickoffs D’Shawn Jamison averaged 18.5 yards on two kick returns.

5. FOUR’S A CROWD?

What’s it like for all four quarterbacks to sit on the bench between series and review video while also listening to position coach Brian Griese?

“It’s great to have a bunch of input. It’s not like everyone is chit-chatting to everyone,” Darnold said. “If they feel they have something important to say, they’ll say it. At the end of the day, we’re listening to what (quarterbacks coach Brian) Griese is telling us, to what Kyle is thinking for the next series. If anyone sees something, they’ll say it. But other than that, it’s Griese talking to us and relaying what Kyle wants us to focus on.”

Added Lance: “Guys kind of talk separately. If I have a question on something, or Sam or Brandon or Brock have a question on what we saw on a certain play or concept, we’ll definitely talk through it. It’s looking at what we saw and turning the page onto the next drive.”

Allen’s take: “We’re looking at pictures, bouncing ideas of each other. We say what we saw on the sideline vs. what (the active quarterback) sees out there with different vantage points. It’s bouncing ideas, what we saw on certain plays.”

6. RUNNING BACK BATTLE

With Christian McCaffrey safely stashed and Elijah Mitchell still recovering from an adductor injury, Mason got the start over Ty Davis-Price. Neither did much. Mason had 17 yards on five carries; Davis-Price totaled 29 yards on nine carries. The longest run each had was for 9 yards. Jeremy McNichols wasn’t any better: four carries, seven yards.

7. ‘AMAZING’ CROWD 

Brown, this year’s top draft pick, enjoyed his initiation into witnessing 49ers fans’ massive attendance at road games. Red-clad jerseys dominated Allegiant Stadium’s scene (paid attendance: 61,985).

“It’s amazing,” Brown said. “Coming from Penn State — where our fans traveled a lot, and, playing in Beaver Stadium, where there’s 107,000 — the crowd doesn’t really affect me. It was a great way to see that (49ers Faithful) support.”

Brown, by the way, had three tackles, his first since the Rose Bowl.

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8. LANCE’S IMPROV ACT

Lance’s touchdown pass to Ross Dwelley will be the 49ers’ featured highlight, seeing how it was intended for Chris Conley and deflected by cornerback Duke Shelley on a near-interception. The prior play deserves closer inspection. That is when Lance climbed the pocket, took six paces, and flicked a pass dangerously close to crossing the line of scrimmage, with Willie Snead IV snaring it for a 12-yard gain to the 9-yard line.

“It was all improvised once I got out of the pocket,” Lance said. “Willie made a great play keeping his eyes on me and continuing to work for me. … Every completion (brings confidence), for sure, definitely confidence in knowing we’re on the same page.”

9. ANOTHER ALFREDO CAMEO

Alfredo Gutierrez, a third-year offensive tackle from Mexico, was thrilled to play in a 49ers uniform for only the second time. He lined up on the right side for Moody’s three kicks. Last year, Gutierrez played five snaps at Minnesota and received the ceremonial game ball from the 49ers’ second preseason game. “Coach told me on the sideline to just be ready,” Gutierrez said of Sunday’s cameo. “I sustained my block. In the first (kick), they brought some pressure, but we held them up.”

10. HIERARCHY IN HOUSE

Dr. John York, the 49ers’ co-owner/chairman, quietly stood in the middle of the locker room as players packed their bags. Upstairs on the press box during the game were general manager John Lynch and salary-cap gurus Paraag Marathe and Brian Hampton. All of which is to say the 49ers’ brass had a visible presence, only days after lawsuits accused CEO Jed York of engaging in insider trading at Chegg Inc., a Santa Clara-based online education platform under fire for allegedly helping students cheat during the height of the pandemic. Jed York has not publicly commented on the accusations, which a Chegg spokesperson described as “wholly unfounded.”