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  • Writer's pictureLiam F.

The Curious Case of Kyle Shanahan

Three of the largest blown leads in Super Bowl history now belong to Kyle Shanahan. A twenty-five point lead as the offensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons in SB LI, a ten point lead as head coach of the 49ers in SB LIV and another ten point lead Sunday night in Sin City.



In the first two occurrences, Shanahan’s mistakes were overshadowed by the criticism pointed towards Matt Ryan & the praise towards Tom Brady and his epic comeback in the 2016 season finale. In 2020, Shanahan was saved by the attention put on Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.


This year, he hasn’t been given that luxury. The story of Super Bowl LVIII is what went into Kyle Shanahan’s decisions down the stretch. We’ll dive into them here.


Ditching The Run Game


The lack of offense on the ground has been really overlooked, but that began the collapse of the 49ers' chance of winning the big game.


After the interception thrown during the first drive of the second half, the Niners had the ball at Kansas City’s 44 yard-line, and ended the drive with a punt. Two incompletions and a designed pass play that turned into a four-yard scrambling gain for Brock Purdy was the best the 49ers & Shanahan had to offer with prime field position.


After stopping Kansas City, the 49ers started their drive with a pass to Jauan Jennings that went for -8 yards. Christian McCaffrey, the newly crowned Offensive Player of the Year, was thrown to on the drive, giving them their only play with positive yardage in the series. But, it ended two plays later, with another punt.


Their next drive, following a Chiefs field goal, began with the 49ers' first handoff to McCaffrey of the entire half. After enjoying no success with the passing game, the 49ers were almost forced to run the football to start the drive, almost ten minutes into the new half. The Chiefs were ready for McCaffrey and stuffed him at the line of scrimmage for no gain. An incompletion and a near-interception later, the 49ers punted again.


San Francisco started the second half with three punts in three drives, and lost two yards altogether. McCaffrey, the center of the offense all year long, was handed the ball once in nine plays.


After a busy 1st half for Christian McCaffrey, he was quieted in the 2nd half -- and it's up for the debate whether that was the Chiefs' doing, or the result of the 49ers' self-sabotaging.


Overtime


This... is where it gets fuzzy. After the muffed punt and the proceeding Kansas City touchdown, the 49ers responded with a touchdown of their own. Jake Moody, who kicked the longest field goal in Super Bowl history earlier in the game, (his record wouldn’t stand long as Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker hit a 57-yarder, two yards longer than Moody’s) had his extra point blocked, keeping the game within a field goal. The two teams would go on to trade field goals, then the Chiefs marched down the field and got three more points for themselves, enough to tie and send the game to overtime.


Now, the coin toss; the 49ers won and decided to take the football. This would make perfect sense in the format of old, where the first score would win the game. But since the “Josh Allen Rule” was enacted following the Chiefs' OT win against the Bills in the 2021 AFC Championship, each team is now guaranteed a possession.



This was the first time we’ve seen the rule in action on this big of a stage. It showed. Not only were fans confused, but the players were too.


49ers' fullback Kyle Juszczyk said postgame, "I assumed you just want the ball because you score a touchdown and win, but I guess that’s not the case.”


49ers' FB Kyle Jusczcyk walks off the field in the wake of the Chiefs' game-winning TD and celebration.


Meanwhile, in the other locker room, Chris Jones was well aware of the change. He said the Chiefs prepared for the scenario and were planning on going for two if San Francisco scored a touchdown in the first possession.


Shanahan was forced to explain his decision postgame, “We wanted the ball third. If both teams matched and scored, we wanted to be the ones who had the chance to go win.”


It’s not a horrible decision. If they scored a touchdown, they’d force the Chiefs to score at least seven, barring another missed kick by Moody. Although Chris Jones said the Chiefs were prepared to go for two, who knows if they would even do it? Who knows if it would even pay off?


The court of public opinion has found Shanahan’s decision to be the sole reason why they lost the game. If they were to defer or elect to kick and Kansas City scored, they would be forced to at least match what the Chiefs put up to keep the game alive. Shanahan took a bet on the defense by electing to receive -- he put the final drive into their hands.


4th and 4


This may be the most jarring decision in my eyes. On fourth-and-four at Kansas City’s 9 yard line in overtime, Shanahan elected to kick the field goal.


If his thought process was to get the third possession, that prospect dwindles with just putting three on the board. With Patrick Mahomes on the other sideline? The only reason they're in this position in the first place is because Mahomes pulled off a game-tying drive in thirteen seconds against the Bills in the AFC Championship and the NFL decided to change the rule. He has the clutch gene, one that may already be giving Brady a run for his money -- a field goal is almost too easy for Mahomes.


To me, a field goal is as good as no points at all. What are the odds Mahomes doesn’t get the Chiefs into field goal range, at the very least? The 49ers' win probability fell from 78% to 73.8% after the field goal according to ESPN’s metrics -- Maybe one of the only times win probability has ever dropped following points being put on the board.


Brock Purdy's third-down incompletion while facing pressure up the middle proved to be costly to the 49ers' championship hopes, as San Francisco proceeded to kick a field goal, leaving the doot open for Mahomes & co.


On the off-chance that the Chiefs were faced with a fourth-down situation in field goal range down three, I would believe they would try for more than a field goal. How many times have we seen Mahomes find open field to convert on a long third or fourth down this season?


Kicking the field goal on fourth and four also was another sign of Shanahan having a ton of trust in the defense. However, I also look at it from another angle.


Shanahan’s Legacy


Other than Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce possibly getting engaged on the field, Kyle Shanahan constantly falling short in the big game was a massive storyline. This game was supposed to help cement his legacy as one of the top-tier coaches in the NFL. He’s been recognized as an offensive mastermind that already has three NFL head coaches in his coaching tree: Miami’s Mike McDaniel, the Jets’ Robert Saleh and Houston’s DeMeco Ryans.


However, time and time again in Super Bowls, first as an offensive coordinator and now twice as a head coach, Shanahan has not only lost, but choked away double-digit leads in the second half. In those three Super Bowls, he has been outscored 29-74 in the second half and overtime. Granted, he was only responsible for the offense in Atlanta -- the defense did allow twenty five unanswered points to tie it, and ultimately allowed the Patriots to score in overtime. But he had multiple opportunities to put the game away offensively and never did.


No lead has ever been enough for him, no matter how large or how late for him to start running the clock out. He was always looking for more points, always looking for more big plays. Is it Shanahan lacking a pair, or is he too overzealous?


A ‘Dissection’


Now it is time to Monday morning quarterback this.


It’s Super Bowl LI; the Falcons lead the Patriots 28-9 with 2:05 left in the 3rd quarter. After a successful onside kick from the Patriots, New England set up shop at their own 41 yard line. A penalty-riddled drive turned into a punt at the Patriots' 44 yard line. Although it gained nine yards, the first play of the drive was a pass from Matt Ryan to Austin Hooper. He could’ve used Pro Bowl running back Devonta Freeman to begin chewing the clock. He had already rushed for a touchdown in the game, and even had a thirty-seven yard rush to begin the game, but wound up with only 11 rushes total in the game.


Their next drive started out with two rushes, both by Tevin Coleman, who wound up injuring his ankle on the second play. 3rd and 1, up by sixteen with 8:31 left in the fourth quarter; Devonta Freeman looms in the backfield, and a passing play is called by Shanahan. It wound up being knocked out from Ryan’s hand by Dont’a Hightower, and the Patriots recovered.


Now, up by 8 with 5:53 to go at their own 10 yard line, the Falcons push the ball downfield to the Patriots’ 22 yard line in only a minute and thirteen seconds. After a Devonta Freeman rush that lost a yard, the Falcons opted to pass the ball, --well, they attempted to pass. Ryan was sacked for a 12 yard loss. The drive amounted to nothing more than a punt. A thirty-nine yard gain on a pass to Freeman and an INCREDIBLE twenty-seven yard reception by Julio Jones to get them within the Patriots' 25-yard-line meant nothing.


While Shanahan's offensive play-calling failures played a huge part in the Falcons' historic Super Bowl collapse to the Patriots in Super Bowl LI, the exalting of Tom Brady and the failure of head coach Dan Quinn took precedent in the media.


The rest was history. The Brady-Belichick braintrust won their fifth Super Bowl, and were the architects of the greatest comeback in football history. Although Shanahan obviously butchered the play-call to close the game, he largely avoided the limelight.


It’s February of 2020, a simpler time, and it's the Chiefs and the 49ers at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, Florida. Patrick Mahomes is in his first Super Bowl, and Kyle Shanahan is in his first Super Bowl as a head coach. The 49ers held a 20-10 lead over the Chiefs, well into the fourth quarter. After the Chiefs made it a three point game with a Mahomes touchdown pass to Travis Kelce, the Niners were given the ball with 6:06 remaining in the fourth.


Shanahan started the drive with a handoff to Raheem Mostert who gained five on the play, then went to the passing game on the next play. Back-to-back incompletions led to a San Francisco punt with 5:10 left.


The Chiefs went on to win the game, and scored twenty-one unanswered points in the fourth quarter to put them over the 49ers 31-20. Shanahan’s collapse was highlighted, but overshadowed by the story of Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid’s first Super Bowl victory. Mahomes, coming off his 5,000 yard, 50 touchdown, MVP season in 2018, got his ring, and Reid was finally able to put the narrative that he couldn’t win in the big game to rest.


In his first Super Bowl as head man, Kyle Shanahan saw another double-digit 2nd half lead slip away, this time at the hands of another elite quarterback/head coach tandem in Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid.


Now this year, Mahomes and Reid win their third, solidifying their dynasty & respective spots in the pantheon of their respective positions, but Shanahan and his Super Bowl woes are the headline out of the weekend.


The Verdict


Kyle Shanahan is among the very best in head coaches in the National Football League right now. He’s probably only behind Reid, Mike Tomlin and John Harbaugh in status, and in some circles, may be even more well-respected then Tomlin and Harbaugh due to recent success.


But Kyle still lacks that Super Bowl win.


There are other active head coaches with Super Bowl victories. Sean McVay, Sean Payton, Mike McCarthy and Doug Pederson have all won the big one, but don’t garner the same respect Shanahan has in recent years. For McVay, he may be considering a jump to broadcasting. Payton and McCarthy’s rings both came almost a decade-and-a-half ago, and Doug Pederson was canned from the Philadelphia job three seasons after his win. He’s since landed on his feet in Jacksonville, but -- after a rough 2023 season, isn’t in the same stratosphere as Shanahan.


Shanahan has a career .567 winning percentage, including the regular and postseason. He has an 8-4 playoff record, two of those losses coming in the Super Bowl. If we dock the NFC Championship loss to the Eagles off his record, where Brock Purdy tore his UCL and backup Josh Johnson took most of the snaps, Shanahan’s fourth playoff loss is yet another blown double-digit lead.


Shanahan is a pretty good head coach. He’s not great, He’s not even really good. His inability to put away big leads in big games is, at this point, startling. Three embarrassing, double- digit blown leads in the playoffs as a head coach and two in the Super Bowl. Not to mention the infamous '28-3' game he played a role in as well. Until he wins a Super Bowl, he’ll remain in the hall of pretty good head coaches.


His impact on the league is evident. From the coaches, both offensive and defensive minded that he’s produced; the Shanahan offense, or “the most electrifying scheme in the NFL” has been replicated but never perfected anywhere else. He’s no Marvin Lewis or Jim Mora, but his regular season success followed by constant playoff disappointment may put him up with the worst playoff coaches in NFL history.


In the New England game, I think Shanahan was trying to be cute. Since then, I think he’s been dealing with the trauma and has tried to add to the lead instead of running the clock and trusting the defense to make stops. He’s put the game into the hands of the defense as of late not due to his confidence in them, but rather to take the game out of the hands of his offense.


At 44 years old, he has plenty of time to flip the narrative. Until then, Kyle Shanahan is as good as anyone else who hasn’t won one, regardless of the respect or status he has in the NFL.


He better get to flipping it sooner rather than later, because that stigma can overtake him and his legacy very quickly.


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