Every week this NFL season, we celebrated the electric plays, investigate the colossal blunders, and explain the inexplicable moments of the most recent slate. Welcome to Winners and Losers. Which one are you?
Winner: The Legend of Patrick Mahomes
There are two things that can’t be killed: gods and legends. I guess I can’t definitively say which one of those two Patrick Mahomes is yet, but during these playoffs one thing has become clear: There’s no hole he can’t climb out of.
The Chiefs just won their first Super Bowl in 50 years to cap a postseason run that’s easily one of the greatest of all time. Kansas City played three playoff games, and trailed by at least 10 points in each—and won each game by at least 11 points. In the divisional round, the Chiefs fell behind 24-0 against the Texans amid a flurry of dropped passes and turnovers. Mahomes rallied them back with seven straight touchdown drives. In the AFC championship, they went down 10-0 as Derrick Henry ran over them. Mahomes threw for three touchdowns and led the team in rushing after a spectacular touchdown run. In the two wins, Mahomes threw for eight touchdowns with no interceptions.
In the Super Bowl, though, the previously unflappable Mahomes seemed to crack. Unlike the first two games, when his team fell behind due to flukish plays and early runs, Mahomes genuinely struggled against the 49ers defense. By three minutes into the fourth quarter, Mahomes had no passing touchdowns and two interceptions—his first multi-interception game of the season. His first pick was the result of a bad decision, a play where he failed to notice a Niners defender. His second was the result of a bad throw, a play where he missed Tyreek Hill with a pass. Mahomes normally does neither of these things.
But Mahomes sprung back. Trailing by double digits in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, Mahomes faced a third-and-15. He threw this pass:
Mahomes would dig himself yet another hole on the biggest play of the game. Already 15 yards from the first-down marker, Mahomes dropped back 14 yards behind the line of scrimmage—you know, your typical 19-step drop—putting himself in a position where he needed to throw the ball 30 yards just to get a first down. He threw it 60. Sure, the throw could’ve been better—a bit more zip and Hill wouldn’t have needed to slow down and the defense wouldn’t have needed to catch up to him—but I suspect we’ll always remember that Mahomes sparked a fourth-quarter comeback to win his first Super Bowl by throwing the ball the length of a city block.
In Mahomes’s first year as a starter, he won league MVP. In his second, he rallied from back-to-back-to-back double-digit deficits to win a championship. I’d call that a good career, but of course, Mahomes is just 24 years old. If Mahomes is a god, he’ll never age, and keep performing these sorts of miracles for the rest of time.
Loser: The Much Less Enjoyable Legend of Kyle Shanahan
Shanahan will spend the rest of his days in fear of win-probability charts.
No, 20-10 isn’t going to have the same ring as 28-3. But there have now been three double-digit fourth-quarter comebacks in Super Bowl history. All three have come in the past six years—and two of them came with Kyle Shanahan on the other side of the field.
The Niners built a lead on the strength of Shanahan’s play-calling brilliance. But they didn’t extend it as much as they could’ve because of Shanahan’s conservative tendencies, and they lost that lead on the weakness of Shanahan’s late-game decision-making.
Shanahan’s moments of weakness were plain for all to see. In the first half, he had a chance to take a lead into the locker room after forcing a Chiefs punt with two minutes to go. Instead, Shanahan seemed fine getting into the locker room without giving the ball back to Mahomes, allowing 40 seconds to run off the clock without calling a timeout and running the ball on first and second down. The Niners did throw the ball after that—an offensive pass interference penalty brought back a long pass to tight end George Kittle—but not before 90 seconds had come off the clock. Shanahan said he “felt real good” at 10-10. Some coaches would’ve felt better at 13-10 or 17-10.
In the second half, the Niners faced a fourth-and-2 from the Kansas City 24-yard line. On Sunday the Chiefs capitalized on similar fourth downs, going 2-of-3 and scoring a first-half touchdown after picking up a conversion. The Niners attempted a field goal, picking up three points instead of seven.
As the game wound down, Shanahan made a mistake similar to the one he’d made in the Patriots’ historic comeback in Super Bowl LI, strangely deciding to throw the ball instead of run it even though San Francisco’s run game had gotten them to the Super Bowl. In the first half, the Niners ran the ball 12 times and threw it 11. In the second half, most of which was spent with a lead, the Niners ran the ball 10 times and threw it 20.
The pivotal moment came with the Niners up three points with six minutes left. San Francicso gained 5 yards on first down with a Raheem Mostert run, the sort of thing they did over and over again in the NFC championship game and for most of the first three quarters against the Chiefs. Then, Jimmy Garoppolo threw back-to-back incomplete passes, and the Niners punted. Shanahan said he wanted to “move the chains” rather than eat clock, but the best way for the Niners to eat clock would’ve been to move the chains, and their run game had been significantly better than their pass game all season long. Tyrann Mathieu said the Chiefs defense was “grateful” when the Niners decided to pass instead of run. If you’re doing anything that makes the opposing defense grateful, you are doing something wrong.
Winner: The FIFA World Cup
One goal of the Super Bowl is to convince you that the Super Bowl is the most important sporting event in the world. We are told that everything is The Biggest and The Best. This year, though, the Super Bowl allowed for a rare crack in its narrative.
The two Super Bowl halftime performers were Shakira and J.Lo, who powered through a dizzying array of their galactic hits in one of the most entertaining shows ever. Most halftime performers take a second to play a slow ballad to catch their breath and attempt to convince the audience that they’re not just a pop star, but a serious, meaningful singer. Shakira and J.Lo knew that we were watching the halftime show to have some damn fun, and they refused to stop doing fun things the entire time.
Toward the end of the performance, Shakira briefly launched into “Waka Waka (This Time for Africa),” the official song of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The moment Shakira sang “Waka Waka,” I remembered that while the Super Bowl is a really big deal, the World Cup is a HUGE deal. Over 1.12 billion people are estimated to have watched the 2018 World Cup Final; the Super Bowl generally draws about 110 million viewers in America and a few million curious viewers from other countries.
The FIFA World Cup is an event that can get Shakira to make a new song—two, in fact, as she also performed one of the official songs of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The Super Bowl, on the other hand, is an event that merely gets Shakira to show up and sing songs she’s already written—including some that are actually about bigger sporting events.
When the Super Bowl is almost over, the smart thing for a sportswriter to do is stay glued to their seat. We need to communicate with our editors what we’re writing and start getting words onto digital paper and send live tweets about what’s happening. But I can’t convince myself to stay up in the press box. I like to go down and sneak into the section of the team that’s about to win. There is no experience quite like being in a sea of people experiencing the greatest moment of their lives.
When a team like the Patriots or the Warriors or Alabama wins, you’re probably not watching people experiencing the greatest moments of their lives. They’re having a great time, sure, and it’s great to be around. But watching fans of the Chiefs—who won Super Bowl IV in 1970, then failed to even make a Super Bowl for the next 50 years—was different. Some fans were watching their decades-old dream come true. Others taught themselves to stop dreaming to avoid the disappointment. I saw a man get down on both knees and slam his hand over and over again into a railing. At that moment, the strange combination of joy and disbelief rendered his ability to celebrate normally completely useless.
It has been a great year for fans who never thought this would happen. The NBA Finals were won by the Toronto Raptors, who had never won since they were founded in 1995, making them the first Canadian team to win any major North American title since the Blue Jays in 1993. The Stanley Cup finals were won by the St. Louis Blues, who had not won since they were founded in 1967. The World Series was won by the Washington Nationals, who had not won since moving to D.C. in 2005, and also hadn’t won in their previous iteration as the Montreal Expos. Tack that on to the recent first-ever victories by the Cleveland Cavaliers (2016) and Philadelphia Eagles (2018) and the end of the Chicago Cubs’ 108-year walk through baseball’s desert (2016), and the droughts are ending at a rapid rate.
There are, of course, some droughts still left out there. I’m a Jets fan (and, if we must talk about it, a fan of the New York Knicks). Sometimes I wonder why I still bother caring about teams so thoroughly mismanaged, that seem so unlikely to ever succeed, that rarely bring me joy. In those moments, I remember my walks through the Super Bowl crowd.
Loser: No-Look Passes
Patrick Mahomes has become famous for his ability to throw passes without looking, but Sunday night we learned that it may be a skill specific to Mahomes. Early in the second quarter, Jimmy Garoppolo threw a truly hideous pick:
Jimmy Garoppolo's interception was just the 2nd by a 49er in the Super Bowl.— CBS Sports HQ (@CBSSportsHQ) February 3, 2020
Colin Kaepernick threw an INT in Super Bowl XLVII.
Joe Montana and Steve Young threw 0 in 5 combined starts.
It seems like Garoppolo was trying to toss the ball away, but he couldn’t muster the strength as the Chiefs defense bore down on him. But I think it’s also possible that Garoppolo was trying to complete a pass to Deebo Samuel but didn’t know where to throw to—a theory that doesn’t seem so bad when you consider that his eyes were closed when he threw the ball:
PSA: Throwing the ball with your eyes closed is NOT a great idea pic.twitter.com/3Miq1RtBxU— The Ringer (@ringer) February 3, 2020
Meanwhile, Mahomes actually looked at every receiver he threw to. The no-look pass fad is over!
Winner: The 1948 Michigan Wolverines
The Super Bowl began with a celebration of the NFL’s 100th season, including an on-field ceremony celebrating the league’s all-time team of the 100 greatest players in the league’s history. As we wrote about last week, the all-time team is comical in some ways. Many of the deserving modern stars of the league were left out in favor of players from the 1930s, who were smaller, slower, weaker players of an ugly, low-scoring game played before anybody knew how to routinely throw a spiral. These were semi-pros who often quit the NFL for mundane day jobs, and we’re supposed to compare them to today’s millionaire hyperathletic giants who spend their entire lives training to achieve peak physical performance so they can reach on-field glory? How can the game they played 100 years ago be considered anything like the game we watch today?
But as offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and the Chiefs reminded us, there is much to be learned from the early days of football. In the first quarter, the Chiefs picked up a fourth down on a play that began with an unusual pre-snap motion:
Chiefs or the Backstreet Boys? pic.twitter.com/MUNyqtvD8R— rone’s gamblin corner (@_rone) February 3, 2020
The Chiefs began in a full-house formation and then did a little spin like they were the Temptations and motioned into a formation that hadn’t been seen in decades—the single wing. Damien Williams and Sammy Watkins lined up in the backfield, and Mahomes stood slightly ahead of them, seemingly prepared to serve as a lead blocker on a run to the right, hearkening back to the days when the quarterback was called the quarterback because he stood a quarter of the way back. The ball was snapped to Williams, who ran up the middle while Mahomes faked a toss to the right. The defense was flustered, and Williams ran straight ahead for the first.
After the game, Bieniemy surprised reporters by revealing the origins of the play—he had been grinding tape from 1949:
Chiefs OC Eric Bieniemy on spin move trick play to convert 4th down vs. 49ers pic.twitter.com/wpOxC1DJMV— James Palmer (@JamesPalmerTV) February 3, 2020
As it turns out, Bieniemy got the year wrong—Northwestern played in the 1949 Rose Bowl, go Cats—but as you can see, the play legitimately is inspired by a play Michigan ran in the 1948 Rose Bowl:
Going through these grainy 1948 Rose Bowl highlights, this might actually be the play the Chiefs stole. More of an inside running path here. Anyway, Fritz Crisler Michigan was very cool pic.twitter.com/tzs2VSXMBz— Alex Kirshner (@alex_kirshner) February 3, 2020
It’s fun to mock the past. (Trust me, I do it all the time.) But it’s probably more fun to win the Super Bowl because you examined the past and realized some of the things that were successful 80 years ago could also be successful today.