The Colts benched Matt Ryan twice this season and may end up cutting him before the next one. Julio Jones hitched his hopes to Tom Brady, only for both legendary players to discover they are mortal. Dan Quinn found work as defensive coordinator in Dallas after the Falcons fired him, and as usual, the Cowboys fell short of expectations.
That leaves 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan as the only major figure from the 2016 Falcons’ Super Bowl season with a chance to redeem himself this postseason. San Francisco will play the Eagles for the NFC championship in Philadelphia on Sunday.
The 49ers are trying to return to glory 28 years after winning their last Super Bowl. Shanahan still is trying to overcome the stigma of 28-3.
Shanahan has been wildly successful with the 49ers. He’s 42-24 over the past four seasons and 6-2 in playoff games during that span. San Francisco is in the NFC Championship game for the third time in the past four seasons. This season, Shanahan has fashioned a top-notch offense with rookie quarterback Brock Purdy, the last pick in his draft.
Shanahan had never been a head coach when he took the 49ers job a day after the 2017 Super Bowl. San Francisco had fired each of the previous two coaches after one season. Shanahan made the 49ers a Super Bowl contender in Year 3.
Shanahan has proved that he’s one of the better coaches in the business. But neither he nor anyone else associated with the Falcons ever will live down that Super Bowl collapse unless they win the big game. That wouldn’t change what happened in Houston on Feb. 5, 2017. It might offer some measure of redemption.
Shanahan got his first chance in the 2020 Super Bowl. The 49ers led 20-10 in the fourth quarter. They lost 31-20. You know what came next. The deficit and the circumstances were different, but subtle distinctions don’t matter when there are 28-3 jokes to be made.
The truth is that a lot of the fans clowning Shanahan for those Super Bowl losses would love to have him leading their team. Shanahan is one of the few coaches with a demonstrated ability to fashion a good offense out of whatever personnel is on hand. He’s done it over 15 years as an NFL play-caller.
Shanahan once helped make Matt Schaub a Pro Bowl quarterback. He built a high-scoring offense around Robert Griffin’s running ability long before that became the norm with quarterbacks. Ryan had his best-ever season after Shanahan convinced him to buy into rolling out to throw passes after run fakes.
Shanahan has done his best coaching job yet this season. His hand-picked quarterback, Trey Lance, suffered a season-ending injury in Week 2. The 49ers won seven of 10 games with Jimmy Garoppolo as the starter. When an injury sidelined Garoppolo, Shanahan turned to Purdy. The 49ers closed the regular season with five consecutive victories, and Purdy has passed for a total of 546 yards on 59 attempts in two playoff games, with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
Shanahan went into last summer planning to go with Nate Sudfeld as the backup to Lance. But the 49ers ended up re-signing Garoppolo after they failed to trade him, and Shanahan kept Purdy over Sudfeld. Purdy benefited from Shanahan’s focus on getting meaningful practice repetitions for players who are deep on the depth chart.
The 49ers ate Sudfeld’s $2 million contract guarantee instead of stashing Purdy on the practice squad and risking another team signing him away. The episode was evidence that Shanahan’s acumen as a coach isn’t limited to his play-calling. He’s also adept at recognizing undervalued talent, developing young players and quickly integrating them into his system.
The 49ers were fortunate to hire Shanahan. He also had interviewed with the Jaguars and Broncos. The Broncos reportedly were set to hire him before going with Vance Joseph. Denver is about to hire its fourth coach since then. The Jaguars are on coach No. 3.
The 49ers already had hired Shanahan before the 2017 Super Bowl. He’d coordinated an all-time great offense with the Falcons. But he found himself in the awkward position of explaining the collapse during his official introduction as 49ers head coach. In some ways, Shanahan is still explaining himself.
He was asked the other day how he doesn’t let the frustration of losing games on the big stage get to him.
“I just treat it as a football game, and when you lose big games, those are hard, real hard, however they happen, and you have to deal with that forever,” Shanahan said. “But I feel like that’s what kind of hardens you to it and makes you get back to the reality of what it really is.”
Football is a game that he loved growing up, Shanahan said, and he feels blessed to be a part of it. His father, Mike Shanahan, won back-to-back Super Bowls as Broncos coach in 1998 and 1999. The younger Shanahan has lost two Super Bowls after his team led late. He’s sure to get more chances because he’s such a good coach and only 43 years old.
Game management is one area where Shanahan still comes up short. He tends to play it too safe when the 49ers have the ball near the end of the first half and are getting the ball after halftime. Shanahan nearly blew a scoring chance near the end of the first half against the Cowboys on Sunday.
Shanahan used 25 seconds of game clock before calling his second timeout before third down. He wanted to avoid leaving time for the Cowboys to score before halftime. The 49ers ended up gaining a first down and quickly moved down the field, but they didn’t have enough time to try to score a touchdown. The plan almost backfired completely when Purdy threw away a third-down pass with one second on the clock.
Shanahan said he knew that 49ers fans were frustrated because he heard their reaction in the stadium during the sequence.
“If I’m a fan, I’d be very annoyed, too,” Shanahan told reporters after the game.
That was nothing compared with what Shanahan heard after the 2017 Super Bowl collapse. I’ve never blamed Shanahan for that. He called the plays, but Quinn had final say. Quinn should have overruled Shanahan when he called the fateful pass play that resulted in a sack, pushing the Falcons out of field-goal range.
Only two Falcons players from that Super Bowl, Jake Matthews and Grady Jarrett, remain on the roster. Ryan and Jones are among the 10 players from that team who were on active rosters elsewhere to end the 2022 regular season. None of them are still playing now.
They’ll have to watch Kyle Shanahan get another chance to exorcise the ghosts of 28-3.
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