Kyle Shanahan has a problem, and he needs to address it quickly.
Watching the San Francisco 49ers enter the 4ᵗʰ quarter with a 10 point lead, I assumed that a team with one of the best defenses in the NFL would be able to see the game out from here and I switched part of my brain off to think back to the halftime show. So imagine my surprise when the still focused part of my brain saw the Kansas City Chiefs draw level and go on to take a 20-31 victory.
This was Shanahan’s 2ⁿᵈ Super Bowl appearance in the last 4 years, having been the Offensive Coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons when they faced the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI. In that game, the Falcons found themselves ahead 28-3 midway through the 3ʳᵈ quarter and 28-9 ahead entering the final quarter, but eventually lost in OT 34-28. Following the game, Shanahan was heavily criticised for not putting more focus on a rushing attack that contained Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, which would have helped the Falcons reduce the time available for the Patriots to come back.
Once again in Miami, I feel that the rushing game was not featured enough in the final quarter, despite the dominance of their rushing game through the playoffs. Even in this game, the rushing attack was having some success. The Niners finished the game with 141 yards from 22 carries (6.4 yds/carry), if you look at just Tevin Coleman and Raheem Mostert then you get 86 yards from 17 carries (5.1 yds/carry). In contrast, Jimmy Garoppolo attempted 31 passes, completing 20 for 219 yards, 1 TD and 1 interception. Granted, the stats would have been impacted slightly by the need to get down the field in a short period of time after going behind late on, but there still doesn’t appear to be a big enough focus on the rush. With running backs like Mostert and Coleman and an elite Tight End like George Kittle, who is an effective blocker and not just a receiving threat, the Niners’ running game is dangerous, but it also does 2 other very important things:
- It keeps the clock running between plays, limiting the time the Chiefs have to come back
- It gives the defense time to rest and recover. Even an elite defense will tire and fade if they aren’t getting a decent break within series, as we saw when Damian Williams broke off a 38-yard rushing TD to end a drive in just 2 plays and effectively guarantee the win
Now I’m not putting all of the blame on Shanahan. Jimmy Garoppolo missed a deep throw late on to Emmanuel Sanders on 3ʳᵈ & 10 that would have probably ended in a Touchdown, or a 1ˢᵗ & Goal at worst. There were also a couple of dubious calls, such as a no-call on what appeared to be an offside – which really seemed to help flip the momentum, while Damian Williams’ go-ahead touchdown was too close to call and eventually came down to sticking with the on-field decision to award the touchdown.
The thing is, sport has narratives, and ever since the Falcons lost in the Big Game, there has been a narrative that Shanahan chokes in the big moments. Unfortunately, the way that this game finished will have done nothing to help dispel this, and if anything has added fuel to the fire.
And so it comes back to my initial point: Kyle Shanahan has a problem and he needs to address it quickly. He is a fantastic coach and I fully expect him to grow from this experience and improve his play-calling. But he has to find a way to break that narrative, as even if he doesn’t believe it himself, it will weigh him down and be on the minds of him, his staff and his players. I seriously hope that he can get past this.