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Christian McCaffrey flashes in 49ers debut, but TBD if he's enough to get S.F. to a Super Bowl title

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Christian McCaffrey looked the part in his 49ers debut on Sunday against the Chiefs.

On the fourth play from scrimmage, he lined up in an I-formation, took a pitch to his left and cut inside for 10 yards. One play later, he lined up again, took a handoff and darted up the middle for another 9 yards.

Neither run was spectacular, but each was attention-grabbing as McCaffrey showed the vision, burst and power that helped establish him as one of the game's top running backs when healthy. They hinted at the possibilities for a player who can affect games as both a runner and a receiver.

McCaffrey had no impact on the outcome, though, as the Chiefs turned a one-point lead into a romp by opening the second half with 4 consecutive touchdown drives that carried them to a 44-23 victory. The loss is sure to have the 49ers doing a lot of soul searching because this marks the second consecutive year they have opened the season with a 3-4 record.

As the game got away from the 49ers, McCaffrey was forced to watch from the sideline because of his rudimentary knowledge of the offense, particularly in pass protections and blocking assignments. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo admitted afterward to explaining McCaffrey's responsibilities to the former Carolina star at least once in the huddle.

And while it's safe to say the best is yet to come for McCaffrey, acquired via trade Thursday for four draft picks, in a San Francisco uniform, there remains great uncertainty about whether he will be enough to get the 49ers over the hump in their quest to win a Lombardi Trophy for the first time in 28 years. Fact is, they likely will be content for the moment if he helps them win their next game, Oct. 30 against NFC West-rival Los Angeles.

San Francisco has lost back-to-back games for the first time in 364 days -- since opening last season with a 2-4 record that bottomed out at 3-5 -- and the 49ers barely resemble the team that rebounded a year ago to advance to the NFC Championship Game, coming within a dropped interception of returning to the Super Bowl for the second time in three years.

And while there is every reason to believe they can turn things around -- they are 2-0 against division opponents and only a game behind the front-running Seahawks, whom they beat 27-7 in Week 2; and they have a roster loaded with talent and a head coach in Kyle Shanahan who has directed them to two conference finals and one Super Bowl in his five seasons -- there are also reasons for doubt.

The 49ers simply aren't playing well. They have been beaten by lesser opponents -- see: Chicago and Denver -- as well as by themselves. On Sunday they had 3 turnovers and a safety. They committed 10 penalties -- including a false start on a 51-yard field-goal attempt that forced them to punt late in the second quarter -- and saw Garoppolo throw an interception from the Kansas City 5-yard line with 1:28 to go in the first half.

They gave up 48 yards on a kickoff return, 34 yards on a third-and-20 screen, and 3 completions of 40 yards or longer. A defense that was being mentioned as being the best in the league a few weeks ago surrendered 529 yards and 6 touchdowns on Sunday.

Granted the unit was not at full strength: Defensive tackle Arik Armstead missed his second consecutive game with a foot injury, and safety Jimmie Ward was playing his first significant action since overcoming a hamstring injury followed by a broken hand. But that should not be enough for them to look as completely overmatched as they were against the Chiefs.

All of which brings me back to this: Might the 49ers have been wiser to use their draft capital at other positions, where there was a greater need, instead of at running back, where there is a solid group?

If you were to rank the areas of concern for them entering the week, the list likely would have gone, in order: cornerback, interior defensive line, interior offensive line. Running back would have been somewhere behind better weather.

In the team's defense, quality cornerbacks don't grow on trees. The 49ers looked, but there were none available. They are known to be content along the defensive line because Armstead is expected to return at some point, but that still begs the question of how the potential season-ending absence of Javon Kinlaw (knee) will affect their depth and rotation.

Shanahan is gifted enough in his play design that perhaps he feels he can get by with what he has along the offensive line; however, the performance of the unit says otherwise. It has been inconsistent, at best, in part because left tackle Trent Williams, arguably the best in the game at his position, missed time with a high ankle sprain.

Maybe the 49ers believe McCaffrey is dynamic enough to help them outscore opponents if necessary. On Sunday, they used him in the backfield as a runner, and put him in the slot and on the perimeter in the pass game. He gained 38 yards on 8 carries, and had 24 yards on 2 receptions. When he's on, he is a matchup nightmare, capable of scoring from anywhere at any time. But might he be a luxury to them?

Fact is, Shanahan has a history of taking what is perceived to be less and making more out of it at that position. He had a different leading rushing in each of his first five seasons. Three of them were undrafted (Matt Breida, Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson), one was taken in the sixth round (Elijah Mitchell), and another he inherited was a second-rounder (Carlos Hyde). None reached 1,000 yards rushing, but four averaged at least 4.7 yards a carry. Hyde averaged 3.9.

McCaffrey clearly is better than any of them, but enough that it will make a significant difference when there are needs elsewhere? And particularly when he missed 20 games due to injury in the past two seasons?

The 49ers would argue that he's a necessity, not only because of what he can do on his own, but also because of how he can help others. Their leading offensive threat for most of the past two years has been Deebo Samuel, the wideout/running back, depending on the play call and need.

But the reality is Samuel's effectiveness decreases the more you ask him to do because he's not as fresh. There are times when Shanahan might anticipate that he's on the field only to realize either he or the position coach has removed Samuel from the game to take a breather.

Which brings us back to McCaffrey. His presence will take some of the weight off Deebo. It will allow both of them to be fresh, which, in theory, should help the offense.

"He's not going to be the savior," said tight end George Kittle, "but he's definitely going to help us out."

Question is, will it be enough to get the 49ers where they want to go?

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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