There was plenty to blame to go around when the Atlanta Falcons blew a 28-3 lead in Super Bowl 51. Kyle Shanahan received the most, though. The then-offensive coordinator of the Falcons was heavily criticized for not calling run plays late in the game to wind the clock, opening the door for the Patriots’ historic comeback.
The San Francisco 49ers’ appearance in Super Bowl 54 wasn’t just Shanahan’s chance at his first Lombardi Trophy. It was his chance to put the 28-3 debacle behind him for good.
Instead, his team collapsed again.
The 49ers led the Chiefs by 10 in the fourth quarter, but gave up three touchdowns in the last seven minutes to lose, 31-20. Kansas City’s 10-point comeback is tied for the second-best rally in Super Bowl history, behind only the Patriots’ from three years earlier.
And just like the last time, Shanahan is getting roasted for choking.
A coach can only do so much with a quarterback he doesn’t trust
The 49ers gave Jimmy Garoppolo a five-year, $137.5 million contract in 2018, and he’s still under contract for three more seasons. Parting with the quarterback who led them to the Super Bowl — and played pretty well in most of it — would be surprising.
However, the 49ers can recoup a lot of that money if they move on from him. San Francisco can save $22.4 million in 2020, $24.1 million in 2021, and $25.6 million in 2022 by releasing Garoppolo.
If the 49ers do make a drastic (and unlikely) move at quarterback, it’d probably be because Shanahan doesn’t have much faith in Garoppolo.
Never was that more apparent in Super Bowl 54 than the last two minutes of the first half. With the score tied 10-10, San Francisco got a defensive stop near midfield. Despite having all three timeouts, Shanahan let the Chiefs bleed about 40 seconds of clock before punting.
The 49ers took over on their own 20-yard line with 59 seconds left, but let the clock go down to 20 seconds with two running plays. San Francisco didn’t pass until the Chiefs, sensing an opportunity to score themselves, called timeout on third down and forced some 49ers’ urgency.
Garoppolo found Jeff Wilson for a 20-yard gain and the 49ers finally used their first timeout of the half. An iffy offensive pass interference call on George Kittle on the next play ended the scoring chance for San Francisco, but only because the 49ers milked most of the clock.
After the game, though, Shanahan said he’d play that situation exactly the same way if he could do it over again.
That’s actually somewhat understandable when Garoppolo threw three interceptions in only 58 playoff pass attempts — including a particularly ugly one early in the second quarter. That’s over five percent of his throws. Even NFL interception god Jameis Winston didn’t have a rate that high in 2019.
The 49ers were at their best this season when they didn’t have to throw at all. They ran the ball 12 straight times against the Vikings in the Divisional Round, and only asked Garoppolo to throw eight passes against the Packers in the NFC Championship.
That’s what makes Shanahan’s decision to pass with a lead in the fourth quarter even more of a head scratcher. Still, how much blame should he get when his quarterback can’t get five yards with six minutes left to protect a three-point lead?
First, Garoppolo didn’t throw to Deebo Samuel in the flat on second down and his pass was knocked down by Chris Jones:
Man, if Jimmy can just flip it to Deebo here — wide open in the flat — it’s an even steeper climb for the Chiefspic.twitter.com/3tZLo8hJox
— Eric Edholm (@Eric_Edholm) February 3, 2020
Shanahan probably should’ve called some running plays, but expecting just a little bit of competency from Garoppolo shouldn’t have been too much to ask.
Running the ball with Atlanta back in Super Bowl 51 would’ve been a good idea, too. However, Matt Ryan shouldn’t have taken a sack that knocked the Falcons out of field-goal range while leading 28-20.
Shanahan also could’ve been helped out by the Falcons’ and 49ers’ defenses, which both failed late. But when the opposing quarterbacks are Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes, that can happen in a hurry.
Coaching decisions matter, but not as much as players on the field getting the job done.
Shanahan’s reputation could follow him for a long time, if not forever
It will be difficult for Shanahan to prove he’s not a choker. Now, only a Super Bowl win could silence the doubters, and he doesn’t have a Patrick Mahomes-caliber quarterback to help him get there. Players like that don’t exactly grow on trees.
Shanahan’s only 40, though. While getting to the Super Bowl is no small feat, he wouldn’t be the first coach to shake a negative reputation after not getting the job done in his first tries. Hell, Andy Reid just did it.
For years, Reid was labeled a coach who couldn’t win it all. That was never really fair either, but in 14 years with the Eagles he never won a ring, despite leading the team to nine winning seasons. Reid’s clock management was usually cited as his biggest shortcoming and that narrative followed him to the Chiefs.
Now it’s impossible to call him anything other than a Hall of Famer.
It could be a long time before Shanahan gets another shot at turning a fourth-quarter lead into a Super Bowl win. It’s possible he never gets another chance at all. But he can look to Reid as an example that reputations can change.