Once again, San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan is taking heat for inexplicable play-calling that resulted in another Super Bowl loss. In two championship game appearances — in 2017 and 2020 respectively — Shanahan’s offenses have been shut out in the fourth quarter.
Shanahan might be the best coach in recent Super Bowl memory, at least for the first three quarters. But then, in the final 15 minutes, something odd happens. Dr. Jekyll turns into Mr. Hyde. Shanahan’s fourth-quarter play-calling has been a disaster.
Shanahan’s 49ers were ahead 20-10 in the latest Super Bowl meltdown. The defense played spectacularly for 45 minutes, holding the NFL’s best offense to only a touchdown and a field goal. San Francisco’s offense generated enough points to take a double-digit lead. It certainly looked like the 49ers were well on their way to hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
Then, the ghost of the Super Bowl past reappeared. Shanahan did another Shanahan. He crumbled under pressure. His team collapsed. Heads down, the 49ers walked off the field in defeat wondering what went wrong in the final 15 minutes.
Shanahan’s choke job is nothing new. It was yet another Super Bowl redux. We’ve seen this before.
Super Bowl LI (February 5, 2017): New England 34, Atlanta 28
Before taking the head coaching job in San Francisco, Shanahan was the offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons. Three years ago, his team led the mighty New England Patriots 28-3 late in the third quarter. If assistant coaches were eligible for MVP awards, Shanahan certainly would have been one of the finalists.
New England, the NFL’s greatest dynasty, wasn’t to be denied, however. Tom Brady’s offense roared back, tied the game in the final seconds, and then won in overtime. The shocking defeat to a great team wasn’t entirely Shanahan’s fault. There was plenty of blame to go around. However, the offensive coordinator’s bizarre play-calling late in the game, seemingly contrary to overwhelming percentages and against all common sense, became the tipping point in a victory melting into defeat.
Late in the game, the Falcons were ahead 28-20. They possessed the ball in New England territory and were within easy field goal range at the Patriots 23-yard-line. A field goal would have all but cemented a victory, creating a seemingly insurmountable 11-point lead with just three minutes left in the game. Not even Tom Brady could overcome a two-score deficit with zero timeouts remaining.
All Shanahan’s offense had to do was run the ball up the middle three straight downs, which might have resulted in a touchdown, or a first down and a chance to run out the clock. Even if the Falcons were stopped by the Pats defense, the kicker — who made 27 of 28 field goals within the 40-yard range that season — would have come onto the field to secure the victory. An 11-point lead with under three minutes to play was in the bag.
Yet Shanahan did the unthinkable. He called for a pass play, which made no sense at all. An incomplete pass would stop the clock. Worse, a sack would knock the Falcons out of field goal range.
So, what happened?
Inexplicably, after the pass play was called from the sidelines, Quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked for a 12-yard loss. Then, after a holding penalty on Atlanta, Ryan threw another incomplete pass on third down. Clock stopped. Falcons punt. Ball turned over to Tom Brady and the Patriots. And, the rest was history.
Shanahan blew it. Big time.
Fast forward to three years later. Shanahan is older and, presumably, wiser. He’s on the other side of the country, this time calling plays for the San Francisco 49ers. Could history possibly repeat itself in a Super Bowl game?
Super Bowl LIV (February 2, 2020): Kansas City 31, San Francisco 20
Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Just ask Kyle Shanahan.
Credit the head coach and the 49ers for building a 10-point lead and getting to the brink of victory in the latest Super Bowl matchup. That said, football isn’t a 45-minute game. It’s a 60-minute game. They don’t give out trophies at the end of the 3rd quarter.
Shanahan’s play calling was already susceptible to criticism, even without the 4th-quarter collapse. The 49ers got to the Super Bowl with a stout defense, combined with a power running attack. In the first playoff game, San Francisco ran the ball 47 times in a crushing defeat of the Vikings. In the second playoff game, San Francisco ran the ball 42 times and dominated the Packers.
But San Francisco ran the ball just 22 times in the Super Bowl against the Chiefs. That’s wacky wrong. Strategically negligent. Absurd.
Why did the 49ers dial back the rushing attack by nearly 50 percent? Sure, they ran fewer offensive plays, which accounts for some decline. Perhaps the 49ers didn’t run the ball effectively, so passing was the better option.
A quick glance at the game stats reveals this to be grossly untrue. The 49ers actually ran the ball effectively during most of the day, even eclipsing the team’s season average. In 22 rushing attempts, the 49ers averaged 5.5 yards-per-carry. Omit QB Garpollo’s two rushes, and San Francisco rushed for nearly 6 yards-per-carry. That’s championship-level football. Those are the stats typical of a Super Bowl winner. Let’s add one more stat that’s relevant: Kansas City’s defense ranked 26th in the NFL against the run this season. This all adds up to a perfect recipe for running, running, and more running by the 49ers.
Shanahan’s decision to pretty much abandon the run made no sense whatsoever. Then, his puzzling offensive strategy became truly jaw-dropping:
“We tried to run the ball,” Shanahan told reporters after the game. “We play action, convert third downs. I think the plays got a little lopsided a little bit where we didn’t have 15-play drives. I didn’t feel like we punted until the fourth quarter.”
Indeed, San Francisco’s first punt came mid-fourth quarter with the Niners leading 20-10. After Kansas City got the ball back and cut the lead to 20-17, the 49ers’ most crucial drive began on their own 20-yard line with six minutes left in the game.
- 1st down and 10: RB Mostert runs the ball up the middle and picks up five yards,
- 2nd down and 5: Pass play. Incomplete pass.
- 3rd down and 5: Pass Play. Incomplete pass.
- 4th down and 5: Punt.
That was the 49ers’ first three-and-out of the game. Kansas City got the ball again, stormed down the field, and took the lead. The same scenario repeated a few minutes later, and the 49ers went from being up by three points to being down by 11. It was a stunning turn of events precipitated by terrible play-calling on Shanahan’s part.
Why would Shanahan call a pass play on second down and 5? This makes no sense at all. The 49ers had been picking up 5.5 yards-per-rushing-attempt. They had two cracks at getting five yards. Two or three first downs meant the game was probably over. It was the 2017 Super Bowl mishap all over again.
Only this time, instead of Tom Brady being the hero, Pat Mahomes was given the chance to shine in the NFL’s marquee game. The only commonality is that Shanahan (and his awful play-calling) set the stage for defeat being snatched from the jaws of victory.
Second Guessing and Monday Morning Quarterbacking
On Monday morning, it’s easy to criticize coaches and players for Sunday’s mistakes. Everyone is an expert after the game is over.
Nonetheless, criticism of Shanahan is deserved, and then some. Outscored in the fourth quarter and overtime of two Super Bowls by the combined score of 46-0, Shanahan’s coaching should be scrutinized. His play-calling has been disastrous.
Football is a game of percentages. It’s a game of weighing risks and a game of accentuating team advantages. It’s also a game of closing the deal.
Shanahan has failed two tests, and done so badly. He and his teams should have two Super Bowl rings by now. Instead, he has zero. Credit Shanahan for getting to the big game. Also, blame him for two imbecilic defeats.