Super Bowl 2024: Kyle Shanahan has put one negative narrative to bed … can he do away with another?

No person is under more pressure in Super Bowl LVIII than San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan. He’s been the play-caller (either offensive coordinator or head coach) for two of the six-largest blown leads in Super Bowl history (more on that in a minute). 

First, let me recognize that the high expectations and pressure come equally because of his coaching excellence as they do the blown playoff leads. He’s coaching in his second Super Bowl at age 44 and is one of the best offensive minds the NFL has ever seen. His teams average the most yards per play and yards per pass attempt of any head coach in NFL history (min. 100 games). Until Brock Purdy arrived, he managed to guide his teams to historic levels of offensive efficiency without a Pro Bowl QB.

He just helped Purdy set an NFL record for yards per pass attempt in a season (9.6) with at least 350 attempts. The record Purdy broke belonged to Matt Ryan from 2016 — when Shanahan was Ryan’s OC. Shanahan is an expert at creating deception, space and mismatches with his playmakers. You can see the impact of his style also paying dividends with two of his disciples in Miami (head coach Mike McDaniel) and Houston (offensive coordinator/play caller Bobby Slowik). 

Shanahan’s ability to play chess with motion and a position-less group of superstar playmakers puts defenses in a blender. On any given play we could see RB Christian McCaffrey lined up at wide receiver, FB Kyle Juszczyk split out wide, WR Deebo Samuel at “wide back” and TE George Kittle in the slot, all with any combination of them in motion. 

Shanahan’s greatness is clearly a big reason his teams are consistently competing for Super Bowls. It’s also a reason he faces a lot of scrutiny when his teams fall short of the ultimate prize. There’s been two primary narratives following Shanahan for years: He can’t come from behind to win a game in the fourth quarter. And he can’t protect a big lead in the playoffs. 

The first one has been put to bed. One of the viral stats that’s made the rounds in recent weeks is that the 49ers were 0-31 under Shanahan when trailing by at least five points entering the fourth quarter. San Francisco trailed the Packers by seven entering the final period in the divisional round, only to pull out a dramatic victory. The 49ers added another “first” the following weekend, to prove this was no fluke. They overcame a 17-point halftime deficit vs. the Lions, the largest in a conference championship game ever and the largest second-half comeback in the 49ers’ seven years with Shanahan. 

The biggest difference between this 49ers team and past ones is Purdy, who calmly led San Francisco down the field for game-winning drives in both games. Shanahan is also more experienced and the 49ers benefited from the inexperience of two young teams in the Packers and Lions. They certainly flipped the switch on some dubious trends. San Francisco has two touchdowns on five fourth-quarter drives this postseason, compared with two touchdowns on 25 fourth-quarter drives in the previous four playoff runs.

Drives

25

5

Offensive points

19

14

Touchdowns

2

2

Points per drive

0.76

2.80

Putting this second narrative to bed will be much more challenging, and if the game goes as scripted, it could definitely play out in a way where it’ll be in the spotlight. Shanahan’s teams have had a tough time closing out games in the playoffs. He’s been the play-caller for three of the six largest blown fourth-quarter leads in the playoffs since 2016. The Falcons blew a 28-3 lead to the Patriots in Super LI, and the 49ers blew double-digit fourth-quarter leads to the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV and Rams in the 2021 NFC Championship. 

Kyle Shanahan as OC/Head Coach

7-3

Rest of NFL

58-3

If anyone can challenge Shanahan late in a game, it’s Patrick Mahomes, the best comeback artist in playoff history. He has a 4-2 record when trailing by at least 10 points in the playoffs, including the aforementioned Super Bowl comeback vs. the 49ers when Kansas City trailed 20-10 with around 12 minutes left. The rest of the NFL is 8-55 facing those same deficits since 2018.

Shanahan’s late-game play-calling has taken a large share of the blame for these losses. However, if the 49ers are going to avoid more heartbreak in Super Bowl LVIII, Shanahan also needs to maximize their scoring opportunities early in the game and finish drives late in games. The 49ers have one touchdown on 29 drives starting in the final six minutes of either half in the playoffs under Shanahan. I repeat. ONE touchdown on 29 drives. 

San Francisco consistently falls into trouble at the end of first halves trying to “lap” the opponent. Meaning Shanahan knows they get the ball to start the second half so they bleed the clock at the end of the first half in an effort to score points without allowing their opponent to touch the ball. Sounds great in theory, but too often Shanahan fails to maximize San Francisco’s points while limiting the opponents. 

Here’s a few Shanahan situations under the microscope in his playoff career. 

Notable game/clock management troubles for Shanahan

Blowing 25-point lead in Super Bowl LI vs. Patriots

Fair or not, Shanahan takes a lot of heat for the Super Bowl LI loss when he was the Falcons’ offensive coordinator and play-caller in the infamous 28-3 blown lead against the Patriots. His one regret from that game. “I wish I didn’t call that play on 2nd-and-11 that led to that sack,” Shanahan said.

The play he is referring to was on 2nd-and-11 on the Patriots’ 23 with 3:56 left in the game and holding an eight-point lead. If the Falcons run three times in that set of downs they would have kicked a field goal to potentially make it an 11-point game with around three minutes to play. Instead, the sequence on second down went sack, holding, incompletion to put Atlanta out of field-goal range, and the rest is history. 

It’s also fair to question a 3rd-and-1 call with a 28-12 lead in the fourth quarter that resulted in a Dont’a Hightower sack-fumble, which the Patriots cashed in for eight points. All told, the Falcons ran 12 pass plays and four run plays after going up 28-3. 

The Falcons defense allowed four touchdowns and one field goal on the final five drives, and Atlanta never touched the ball in overtime, but still, some of Shanahan’s play calls were head-scratchers. 

Opting to take knee over trying to add more points before halftime in 2019 divisional round vs. Vikings

Up 14-10 over Minnesota in the second quarter, San Francisco had the ball on its own 25-yard line with 0:31 left in the game and one timeout.

Jimmy Garoppolo had thrown an interception on the previous play, which Minnesota cashed in for three points so Shanahan was content taking a four-point lead into the half. San Francisco kneeled down with 31 seconds left and one timeout at its own 25. 

There was a reasonable chance the 49ers could have scored. Since 2000, teams score on 23% of drives starting with one timeout and 25-35 seconds left in the first half. 

Shanahan could have also burned that last timeout at the end of the Vikings’ previous drive and saved 40 seconds on the clock. It made no impact on the game as the 49ers cruised to a 27-10 win. 

Electing not to use any timeouts before halftime in Super Bowl LIV vs. Chiefs

Tied 10-10 in the second quarter, the Niners had the ball at their own 20 with :59 seconds left and all three timeouts.

Shanahan opted to not use any of his remaining three timeouts after the Chiefs drive stalled at midfield with 1:53 left in the first half of a tie game. Fox cameras later panned to 49ers GM John Lynch in the suite signaling timeout. 

Troy Aikman on the call: “Interesting decision by Kyle Shanahan not electing to use a timeout. They would have had 1:30 or 1:35 with two timeouts had they done it. Instead they hold all three with 0:59 left.”

Shanahan then elected to run it on the first two plays, so by the time they completed a 20-yard pass on third down to get them around midfield there was only :14 left. Ultimately, the drive stalled when George Kittle was called for offensive pass interference on a 42-yard catch.

Blowing 10-point, fourth-quarter lead vs. Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV

The 49ers had a 20-10 lead with 11:57 left in Super Bowl LIV and called 12 pass plays to five run plays the rest of the game. That seems questionable on paper, but in reality the tape shows there were plays out there to make and Jimmy Garoppolo did not make them.

  • 9:52 left on 2nd-and-9: He overthrew Deebo Samuel when pressured
  • 5:23 left on 3rd-and-5: He did not see an open George Kittle past the chains
  • 1:40 left on 3rd-and-10: He overthrew an open Emmanuel Sanders on a deep ball to take the lead

Yes, the 49ers could have run the ball more in the two-minute drill with three timeouts left despite a 24-20 deficit at that point. Case in point, the first play of that drive was a 17-yard run by Raheem Mostert. Still, the comeback says a lot more about Mahomes and Garoppolo than it does Shanahan. 

Playing for FG over TD before half in 2021 NFC Championship at Rams

Tied 7-7 in the second quarter, the 49ers had the ball on their own 44-yard-line with 1:50 remaining and all three timeouts.

The 49ers opened this two-minute drill drive in a tie game near midfield with a 2-yard run to Deebo Samuel. They proceeded to run the next play with one second left on the play clock and 1:04 left on the game clock, killing the upside of an eventual FG drive that could have been a TD drive.

Blowing 10-point, fourth-quarter lead vs. Rams in 2021 NFC Championship 

In the same game, the 49ers blew a 17-7 fourth-quarter lead against the eventual Super Bowl champion Rams. I’d hardly blame Shanahan’s play-calling, as the 49ers’ ground game couldn’t get anything going the entire game. Shanahan called nine passes to three runs after going up 10 points, including six straight pass plays to end the game. 

I do think it’s fair to question how Deebo Samuel did not get a touch or target in the final 12:30 (last nine plays) when he was by far the 49ers’ best weapon during a historic 2021 season. And, of course, you can’t ignore Jaquiski Tartt’s dropped interception that led to a Rams’ game-tying field goal in the fourth quarter.

Electing not to challenge DeVonta Smith’s fourth-down catch in 2022 NFC Championship vs. Eagles

Shanahan did not challenge a 29-yard catch by DeVonta Smith on fourth down that eventually led to a TD, which replays later showed was definitely NOT a catch. After the game Shanahan said he would have called a timeout to get a better look at the replays but the ones they did see seemed conclusive. Again, this was a moot point after Brock Purdy’s torn UCL aided in the Eagles 31-7 blowout. However, if there was any inkling of doubt, Shanahan should have absolutely thrown the challenge flag or called a timeout to get a look at more replays before making a decision to challenge. Lesson learned I’m sure. 

Trying to ‘lap’ opponent in 2023 divisional round vs. Packers 

Leading 7-6 in the second quarter, the 49ers had the ball on their own 25 with 4:09 remaining and all three timeouts available.

Shanahan showed little urgency to score a TD at the end of the first half a few weeks ago vs. the Packers. The 49ers methodically marched down the field on a drive starting with four minutes left, ultimately getting to the Packers 43 with 34 seconds left before burning any of his timeouts. The result was a Jake Moody blocked 48-yard field-goal attempt. This was a spot where Shanahan was trying to “lap” his opponent. Meaning to score at the end of the first half and get the ball back to begin the second half.

“At that time, we’re up 7-6. Worst-case scenario, I feel we’re going into halftime up 7-6. I’d like it to be second worst-case scenario, 10-6, knowing we’ll make the field goal. We’re starting with the ball in the third quarter so we could have a chance to lap them.”

It’s also fair to question Shanahan’s game management here. It was a close game in the rain where Brock Purdy was struggling and the 49ers only ran the ball 38 percent of the time, well below their season average of 48 percent. When you have Christian McCaffrey he needs more touches. 

San Francisco was fortunate to escape that game with a three-point win, but that possession at the end of the first half would have haunted them if it turned out differently. For a head coach as accomplished as Shanahan, it’s surprising to see his offenses stall at the end of halves like they have. The 49ers are 25th in EPA per play on drives beginning in the final six minutes of halves in the playoffs under Shanahan. They are seventh the rest of the game. 

I’d like to think Shanahan learned to be more aggressive based on how the end of the first half in Super Bowl LIV vs. the Chiefs played out, but the situation vs. Green Bay two weeks ago proves that might not be the case. Bottomline, his clock management is alarming.

It’ll also be interesting to see Shanahan’s play-calling if San Francisco has a late lead. He’s been more than 2:1 in favor of pass plays after taking his largest leads in his previous double-digit blown leads in the playoffs. 

After 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI

12

4

After 20-10 lead in Super Bowl LIV

12

5

After 17-7 lead in 2021 NFC Championship

9

3

It’s easy to play Monday morning quarterback and scrutinize play-calling after a blown lead. The counter to the pass-heavy approach — going the conservative route of run-run-pass — will often leave your team in 3rd-and-long and get you into the same trouble anyways. With the exception of one or two calls in the blown 28-3 lead, I think Shanahan’s play-calling has been a scapegoat. Oftentimes teams will go as far as their QB takes them. In the case of his 49ers tenure, he had Jimmy Garoppolo looking rattled late in games vs. QBs like Matthew Stafford and Patrick Mahomes making big plays. 

If things will be different in Super Bowl LVIII, it’ll mostly be because he has Brock Purdy. Shanahan only has to look to the opposite sideline for inspiration. Andy Reid was often criticized for clock management while he had zero titles before Patrick Mahomes came along. Reid was crushed after a 28-point blown lead to the Colts in the 2013 playoffs, and a 18-point blown lead at home to the Titans in the 2017 playoffs. Oh, how times have changed. 

No, Brock Purdy is not Patrick Mahomes. But he’s not Jimmy Garoppolo either, so maybe times will change for Shanahan, too. I love his response when interviewed by Peter King this week and asked if he’s haunted by “28-3” to this day.  

“No,” Shanahan said. “It hurts. It doesn’t kill you. You understand what happened. You understand you can handle it. You can take it. ‘Haunted’ is just such the wrong word. It makes you stronger, really. But, you know, if you told me before that game you’re going to blow a 28-3 lead and lose, I’d be like, ‘Do I ever come out of my room again?’ You realize, this is sports. Any one of 20 different plays would’ve changed that game. But I also understand that the quarterback on the other side [Tom Brady] did the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever seen. He performed surgery for an entire second half. The harder one was the Kansas City game, personally.

“As you get older and you go through the experience, you just you try to control everything. You realize you can’t. You also realize you can handle it. And you realize how much you love it.”

Clearly Shanahan’s resolve is stronger than ever and has the 49ers on the doorstep of their first Super Bowl title since 1994. If he can clear one more hurdle, and close out an all-time great QB with a late lead, he’ll put one more narrative to bed. Until then, fair or not, he will be criticized for failing to seal the deal.



Source link