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How Kyle Shanahan *really* blew Super Bowl 54

Not the way everyone’s going to say he did.

Super Bowl LIV - San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Let’s agree to a couple things at the top of this post.

1) In any sporting event, any number of things might’ve changed the outcome had they gone differently. Just because a team might have won by doing X differently does not mean they shouldn’t have also done Y differently. This will be important.

2) Kyle Shanahan knows more about football than you or me.

3) The losing coach in the Super Bowl is going to get panned no matter what.

We’re all in agreement? That’s very good. I’m glad we’re going to be friends. Now please understand that this next point is only me trying to call a spade a spade:

Shanahan blew it. He didn’t blow it in the way coaches usually blow it when their teams lose 10-point leads in the fourth quarter. He blew it much earlier: when he called an overly conservative game in the first half, leaving crucial points off the board that the 49ers badly needed when things went to ruin for them in Super Bowl 54’s final minutes.

The 49ers lost by 11, but seven of those didn’t affect the outcome. They were garbage-time points when the Chiefs broke a big TD run while draining the clock. The 49ers really lost this game by four critical points. Where Shanahan enters the equation is simple. In the first half and at the start of the second, he had ample chances to get the 49ers four more points that would’ve made Kansas City’s two late touchdowns much less damaging. He passed on them, then lost.

Shanahan’s first iffy move was a field goal on the Niners’ first drive.

After the San Francisco defense forced a three-and-out on the game’s opening series, the offense moved 62 yards on the first nine plays. After an incompletion, the 49ers faced fourth-and-5 from the Chiefs’ 20-yard line. The most conventional wisdom on this — i.e., the thing most NFL coaches have done forever — says kicking a field goal is the smart move. That’s what Shanahan did, and Robbie Gould’s 38-yarder put SF ahead, 3-0.

I don’t think this was a good idea, though, for reasons that played themselves out a few hours later. A touchdown is way more valuable than a field goal — three points more valuable, to be exact, and four if they hit the point-after attempt — and it’s a pretty bold move to try to beat Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs with field goals. Do you think they’re going to settle for field goals a lot? I didn’t. (My receipt is here, if you’re looking for proof I was saying this even before it backfired.)

Could the 49ers have been stopped? Of course. But the possible benefit of four more points on that drive was worth taking the risk, particularly given Jimmy Garoppolo and their offense had moved the ball nicely. And a minor silver lining: the Chiefs would’ve had below-average field position, starting off somewhere between their own 15 and 20.

On the Chiefs’ ensuing drive, which instead started a few yards ahead at their 25, Andy Reid went for it on a fourth-and-1. The Chiefs converted and scored a touchdown.

Shanahan’s second iffy move was not pressing harder to score points at the end of the first half, when he had plenty of time.

There was about 1:50 left on the clock when the 49ers, tied 10-10, stopped the Chiefs on a third down. The clock was running, and the ball was at the Chiefs’ 49. The Niners had three timeouts. But Shanahan chose not to spend one, letting the Chiefs run the clock down an extra 40 seconds. After a touchback, the Niners only had 59 seconds in the half.

Shanahan called two run plays, making no effort to score. He was content to go to halftime tied and maybe listen to some Shakira and Jennifer Lopez through the concrete bowels of Hard Rock Stadium. After the second run, the Chiefs called timeout, sensing a chance to make a splash play and score some points themselves before the break.

That prompted Shanahan to throw on third down, and the 49ers happened to break off a 20-yard completion. Now, Shanahan was in scoring mode, calling timeout. But there were only 14 seconds left. It’s not Shanahan’s fault that officials wiped out a 42-yard George Kittle catch on the next play with a lousy offensive pass interference flag. But if he’d spent more downs trying to score, he’d have had more time to recover and maybe still get three points.

Instead, Garoppolo kneeled from his own 34. Who knows how many points SF left on the field? There’s a fine chance it was at least three.

Shanahan’s third iffy move was another short field goal that could’ve been an attempt to score a touchdown instead.

On the first drive of the second half, Shanahan opted for a 42-yard field goal on fourth-and-2 from the Chiefs’ 24. Gould made it, putting SF ahead, 13-10.

The 49ers had run the ball well (they’d finish at 6.4 yards per carry) and had spent the whole postseason tearing teams up on the ground. Garoppolo had shown plenty of competency to throw for a two-yard completion if necessary. But Shanahan kicked.

How many points were left on the field? Maybe zero, but maybe four.

Add these chances up, and Shanahan passed up a lot of really doable opportunities to put at least four more points on the board.

People will focus more on Shanahan calling a couple of pass plays that fell incomplete while the Niners protected a late lead. Those fit neatly with a narrative from his performance as the Falcons’ offensive coordinator in their stunning come-from-ahead loss to the Patriots in Super Bowl 51. If only they’d run the ball while up, 28-3, this idea goes, they’d have killed the clock and won. That may or may not be true, but it’s a simple view that ignores how defenses played Shanahan’s offenses and puts little faith in his playcalling ability.

Shanahan’s decisions on those fourth downs, and at the end of the first half, are a different matter. Being aggressive carries no guarantees. But he was the opposite of aggressive three different times, and his offense came up four points short when it mattered most.

The 49ers’ defense failed in crunch time, and the offense didn’t come through with a drive when it needed one. But both units could’ve had a lot more margin for error if Shanahan acted more boldly when he had the chance.

I’ve corrected a down-and-distance typo in this story. The 49ers kicked a first-quarter field goal on fourth-and-5, not third-and-5.