So maybe it’s not us. Maybe it’s him.
Kyle Shanahan had nothing to do with all the other (thousands of) Atlanta Collapses. He didn’t call the Mark Wohlers slider to Jim Leyritz. He didn’t whisper in Cliff Levingston’s ear, “Use your left hand. The Celtics will never expect that.” And Atlanta played no role in the latest chapter of Shanny at the Super Bowl, in which his team again led by double figures and lost.
Stipulation: A 20-10 lead isn’t the same as 28-3. There will never be another 28-3. (Unless there is, but Dan Quinn — “We wanted to stay aggressive” — would have to get back to the Super Bowl for that to happen.) When Shanahan’s 49ers moved ahead by 10 with 2:35 left in the third quarter, nobody in his/her right mind was thinking, “This one’s over.” That’s a two-score game with 17-1/2 minutes left and Patrick Mahomes, who’d overridden deficits of 24 and 10 points in these playoffs, was on the other team.
The Super Bowl of four seasons ago saw the Falcons hold a four-score lead with — this part is eerie — 17-1/2 minutes remaining. They lost because Shanahan, the offensive coordinator who’d barely missed a trick in getting his team to that stage and then assuming a 25-point once there, stopped running the ball. There was no single call in this latest flop as egregious as the pass on third-and-1 that became a Dont’a Hightower strip/sack of Matt Ryan or, worse still, the pass on second-and-11 while in range of a clinching field goal that became another sack.
As head coach of the 49ers, Shanahan created a team that was second in the NFL in rushes and yards rushing. The 49ers had the ball twice while holding that 10-point lead or the remnants thereof. On those two possessions, they ran the ball four times, though one of those was a Jimmy Garoppolo scramble, and passed it four times.
The Falcons had the ball three times after assuming their 28-3 lead before they led no more. They threw the ball five times. Actually, they tried to throw it nine times. Three resulted in sacks, the fourth in a Jake Matthews hold. They ran it five times, one being nullified by, ahem, a Matthews hold.
Shanahan was (slightly) more prudent in his late-game calls Sunday than he’d been on Feb. 5, 2017. Again, though, those calls weren’t good enough. After a Kansas City possession lasting 5:38 ended with a Mahomes interception, the 49ers got the ball with 11:57 remaining, still up 10. Their first two plays were ideal — a Raheem Mostert run for six yards and a Garoppolo play-action pass to tight end George Kittle for 12 and a first down at the San Francisco 38. One more first down and they’d have been at midfield eating serious clock. That first down wouldn’t be forthcoming.
Mostert was stopped after a yard on first-and-10. It has been clear throughout the season and especially during the playoffs that Shanahan has game-planned around Garoppolo’s limitations. The quarterback is fine throwing off play-action — nobody threw more play-action than he did this season — but pretty ordinary when a play-fake is no great lure.
This was such a moment. Garappolo faked a handoff, but the Chiefs were blitzing. He threw under pressure and missed Deebo Samuel over the middle. The clock stopped on the incompletion. Third-and-9 became third-and-14 after a false start. This led to a no-hope scramble and San Fran’s first punt of the game. The 49ers bled off only 3:04.
Mahomes’ touchdown pass to Travis Kelce after Tyreek Hill was allowed to run free on third-and-15 made it 20-17 with 6:17 left. Now the Niners had to make first downs. Mostert gained five on first-and-10. Did Shanahan call a second run? Nope. Another play-action fake led to Garoppolo’s pass being batted down. Clock again stopped. Third-and-5. Another Chiefs blitz. Garoppolo was hit on the throw. The 49ers saved their first three-and-out for the worst moment. They wouldn’t again have the ball with the lead.
Twice Shanahan had a chance to follow a first-down run with a second-down run. Three times he opted for play-action passes. The first worked. The second two did not. In trying not to put Garoppolo in third-and-long, twice the 49ers wound up there anyway. It’s never easy to run when the opponent knows that’s what you want, but Shanahan’s team aided and abetted the enemy by playing against its strength. This after being asked all Super week about “the lessons” of 28-3, to which Shanahan replied, “What lessons?” Good grief.
It must be said, though, that those fourth-quarter possessions weren’t Shanahan’s worst moment of Super Bowl 54. His refusal to call timeout at the end of the first half was indefensible. Yes, the 49ers were to get the ball after halftime. Really, though: In the neo-NFL, who plays to protect a halftime TIE?
The 49ers took the ball at their 20 with 59 seconds and three timeouts remaining. Kansas City would stop the clock before Shanahan did. San Francisco allowed 30 seconds to tick away between first- and second-down snaps. (A Fox camera caught 49ers general manager John Lynch making the timeout signal.) You might say that, if not for an offensive interference call against Kittle at 0:06, they’d have scored before halftime. But they didn’t, and even a field goal would have been significant. After the Chiefs nosed ahead 24-20, how much different might the 49ers’ ensuing drive have been were the score 24-23?
We’ll never know. For today, all we can know is that another Super Bowl has left Kyle Shanahan with more explaining to do, and for once in our tortured lives, we Atlantans aren’t the ones screaming, “WHYYYYYY?”
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