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How the 49ers Blew Their Super Bowl LIV Hopes

San Francisco looked set to win a title, but a series of conservative play calls and bad plays let Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs back into the game

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

At 9:30 p.m. ET, it seemed like Kyle Shanahan would erase some demons, Jimmy Garoppolo would claim his first real ring, and the 49ers would win their first Super Bowl since 1994. The team entered the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIV with a 20-10 lead and a phenomenally high chance of winning:

Less than an hour later: Chiefs 31, 49ers 20. Kansas City put up 21 unanswered to end a 50-year Super Bowl drought. How did that happen?

A series of mistakes from the 49ers allowed the Chiefs to claw their way back into the game. The spotlight is particularly bright on the Niners’ biggest names: Shanahan and Garoppolo. The former’s questionably conservative play calls and the latter’s crucial missed throws combined to produce a stunning Super Bowl collapse.

Let’s start with the first big mistake, a clock-management screwup that is more typical of teams coached by Andy Reid than Shanahan. Near the end of the first half, the Niners’ defense stifled the Chiefs, forcing a fourth-and-13 with nearly two minutes left on the clock. But rather than call one of his three remaining timeouts, Shanahan let Kansas City wind the clock all the way down to 1:08. When his team got the ball with 0:59 remaining, he used his first two plays to run Raheem Mostert into the teeth of Kansas City’s defense, keeping the clock ticking.

Shanahan could have given his team nearly two minutes, with two timeouts, to drive downfield against Kansas City’s defense, which ranked in the middle of the pack by DVOA. Instead, he let the clock run. Shanahan may as well have sent in the play call with a note for Jimmy: “I don’t trust you, dude.”

He nearly said as much after the game. When asked about his decision to not call a timeout and let the clock run, Shanahan said “the last thing we were going to do was allow them to get the ball with three timeouts.” Shanny, what about your team with the ball and your timeouts? If Shanahan’s explanation is that the Chiefs’ best strategy is to go down and score, why is that not also his own team’s best strategy?

Shanahan said that he “felt real good” at 10-10 at the end of the half. But if anyone should know not to relax in the Super Bowl, it’s him:

Kansas City, the much more aggressive team on the night, actually did call a timeout and tried to get the ball back, and the Niners took a shot downfield as a result. They very nearly connected on a deep pass to George Kittle, but a ticky-tacky pass interference call against the tight end negated the play, which now serves just as a reminder of what the team could have done had it chosen to be aggressive in that spot to begin with.

The Niners weren’t done, though. On their very next drive, to open the third quarter, they drove 60 yards down the field, chewing up more than five minutes of clock in eight plays. Then the drive stalled, and San Francisco faced a fourth-and-2 from the Kansas City 24-yard line. Rather than trust in his world-class running game or $137.5 million quarterback, Shanahan chose to kick a field goal to take a three-point lead. According to EdjSports, that decision cost the Niners a full 5 percentage points in win probability:

I don’t know if EdjSports’ model is adjusted for the fact that the Niners were playing Patrick Freaking Mahomes, but it shouldn’t be a surprise that the team would need more than three points to overcome the Chiefs.

I’d also quibble with the Niners’ fourth-quarter decision to punt on fourth-and-5 from their own 25-yard line. They were up three at that point, with 5:18 left on the clock. If they went for it and succeeded, they would have had a chance to ice the game with a long drive. If they didn’t convert, at least they would have known that Mahomes and Co. couldn’t burn all the time off on a game-winning drive.

But that’s a small concern, and in fairness to Shanahan, there was a lot to like about his offensive game plan. The gadget plays to Deebo Samuel made the rookie wide receiver look like the early favorite for MVP. (He hit the record for wide receiver rushing yards in a Super Bowl with 53.) The heavy play-action usage gave the Niners a number of easy chunk plays. The team averaged 6.5 yards per play (the Chiefs were at just 5.3), including 6.4 on the ground. They converted on all their red-zone opportunities and netted 21 total first downs. Hell, if it weren’t for the aforementioned PI on Kittle, the entire game might have looked different.

The small mistakes add up, though, and Garoppolo had his own late in the game. Jimmy G had been one of the best late-game passers all year, but in this game he was abysmal, going 3-for-11 for 36 yards and an interception in the final frame. In particular, this overthrow, intended for a wide-open Emmanuel Sanders, will give him nightmares:

Overall, the Niners offense gained just 49 yards on 17 fourth-quarter plays, picking up three first downs and burning a little over five minutes off the clock. Once Mahomes got going, the 49ers not only had no answer, but had nothing to offer whatsoever.

They were thisclose to going home as champions, but instead, they will go home with the bitterest of collapses since … well, you know. It’s true that Mahomes’s magic is hard to deny, but there was something else undeniable about this game: The 49ers blew it.