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Kyle Shanahan and the Cruelty of an Almost Perfect Season

The 49ers’ game plan worked flawlessly for three and a half quarters in Super Bowl LIV. It wasn’t enough. Now their head coach is left to wonder where it all went wrong—again.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Joe Staley asks whether, for just a second, you could see it from his perspective. The 49ers are barely an hour removed from blowing the second-largest fourth-quarter lead in Super Bowl history, and their 35-year-old left tackle isn’t in the mood to answer questions. After giving reporters a series of one-word answers, he pauses, takes a breath, and apologizes. “You put your heart and soul and your entire life into trying to be a Super Bowl champion, and you get toward the end of your career, and you realize how rare these opportunities are,” he said. “The emotions are still raw, and real for me right now. … Put yourself in my shoes for a second. It’s tough.”

Staley has played in San Francisco for 13 seasons. He’s the lone holdover from the Niners’ last Super Bowl appearance in February 2013. In a magnificent career that includes six Pro Bowl trips and three All-Pro selections, he’s played for a championship twice—and watched his chance to win slip away in the final minutes each time. This time, the Niners led the Chiefs 20-10 when cornerback Tarvarius Moore intercepted a Patrick Mahomes pass with 11:57 remaining. San Francisco ultimately lost, 31-20.

Kyle Shahahan was also making his return trip to the Super Bowl on Sunday night. His failure in his first showing became part of the most notorious collapse in the history of the sport. Shanahan was the offensive coordinator for the Falcons when they coughed up a 25-point lead to the Patriots in Super Bowl LI. On Sunday, he was the head coach for the Niners when they relinquished a 10-point lead to the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV. Fairly or not, his story is no longer that he’s the most brilliant offensive mind in the NFL. It’s that when the moment looms largest, his play-calling prowess gets overshadowed by a lack of situational awareness.

For most of his illustrious coaching career, Andy Reid carried the same reputation. His well-designed offenses repeatedly fell short in the playoffs amid a series of baffling time-management decisions. Reid the decision-maker betrayed Reid the play-caller in the same way Shanahan fought against himself Sunday. Now Reid is a Super Bowl champion, and every question is answered, every doubt eradicated, and every caveat removed, all with a single win. And Shanahan is left wondering where it all went wrong, again.

San Francisco’s game plan against Kansas City was flawless for three and a half quarters. The Niners hammered the Chiefs defense with a deluge of perimeter runs. They consistently hit on play-action throws to the middle of the field. They didn’t punt until the 9:01 mark of the second quarter. And while San Francisco’s offense shortened the game, its defense stifled Mahomes in a way no other team has. Playing an ultraconservative three-deep shell, the Niners did all they could to prevent downfield throws as they bet on their pass rush to terrorize Mahomes in the pocket. For most of the night, it worked. He threw two interceptions—his most in a game since November 2018—and the Niners looked like the unstoppable buzz saw they’d been for these entire playoffs. It still wasn’t enough.

Shanahan’s detractors will likely dissect his play calls down the stretch, but his decisions worth questioning happened much earlier. There was 1:47 left in the second quarter when the 49ers made a third-down stop that should have given them plenty of time to attempt another scoring drive. But rather than use the first of his three timeouts to stop the clock, Shanahan let the seconds tick away so that San Francisco got the ball back with less than a minute remaining before halftime. “The last thing we’re going to do there is allow them to get the ball with three timeouts left, especially with their quarterback and their offensive speed, and go down and score before half,” Shanahan said after the game.

Shanahan also said he “felt good” about the 10-10 score going into the break, even if it didn’t reflect how well the Niners had executed to that point. The best way to bury Mahomes and the Chiefs is to simply put the game out of reach, and the Niners gave away too many opportunities to do that. Shanahan’s fear of giving Mahomes a chance late in the second quarter meant he gave Mahomes a chance late in the fourth. The same second-guessing applies to Shanahan’s choice to kick a field goal on the opening drive of the second half rather than go for it on a fourth-and-2 from the Kansas City 24-yard line. “I thought about it for a little bit there,” Shanahan said. “Probably would have if it was less than 1 [yard], but it was closer to 2.”

It’s possible that a lack of faith in his quarterback fueled Shanahan’s conservative approach, and there were moments Sunday when that doubt seemed warranted. Jimmy Garoppolo’s first interception of the night came on the sort of mystifying decision he’s prone to make on occasion. Picks like that were likely the Niners’ biggest fear heading into the game. Garoppolo also made a few other crucial mistakes, including overthrowing a wide-open Emmanuel Sanders on a potential go-ahead touchdown and targeting Kendrick Bourne instead of all-world tight end George Kittle on a key third down in the fourth quarter.

It’s also possible that none of the Niners’ miscues would have mattered if one or two more bounces had gone their way. If Kansas City pass rusher Chris Jones hadn’t batted down a Garoppolo pass to Kittle with 5:18 remaining, maybe the Niners would’ve salted the game away and Mahomes wouldn’t have touched the ball again. If Mahomes hadn’t slipped away from Bosa on a second-and-5 with less than five minutes to play, maybe the Chiefs would’ve punted instead of driving for the go-ahead score.

The margins in a Super Bowl are often inconceivably small. The difference between winning and losing, between becoming immortal or becoming a punch line, between Mecole Hardman and Byron Pringle rapping every word to “Dreams and Nightmares” in a victorious locker room while Staley and others changed in silence, can come down to a few scattered plays. A team had to be perfect to beat Mahomes during these playoffs, and San Francisco wasn’t perfect. But what stung the most for these Niners is they had to be virtually perfect to make the Super Bowl at all.

Even the best teams and the best coaches need breaks to reach this stage. And for more than 95 percent of this postseason, it felt like the Niners had tapped into a championship recipe. San Francisco was healthy and clicking, with an ideal blend of talent and a coaching staff completely locked into a groove. For nearly three full games, the Niners played at a level that only a select group of teams approach, and there’s no guarantee they’ll get there again. The 49ers aren’t the Chiefs. Their success wasn’t reliant on the outsize contributions of the world’s greatest quarterback. Shahanan’s team was an expertly crafted machine that thrived because of how the individual parts came together to create the whole. That formula took a perfect game into the bottom of the ninth, only to watch it fall apart.

Sustaining this sort of championship excellence with that model isn’t easy, because finding the right Super Bowl recipe requires so many factors falling into place. The Niners have constructed their contracts to give them a lot of financial flexibility, but this roster won’t stay intact in 2020. At 35, Staley’s future is uncertain. Safety Jimmie Ward, who excelled during the first fully healthy season of his career, is set to become a free agent. So is defensive lineman Arik Armstead, who flourished in his first year under defensive line coach Kris Kocurek and his attacking system. Three years into their tenure together, Shanahan and 49ers general manager John Lynch deserve the benefit of the doubt, but plenty of brilliant coaches and front offices have struggled to get back to the Super Bowl. Just ask Reid.

The Chiefs head coach has nine seasons of at least 10 wins since 2005, but this was his first trip back to the Super Bowl in 15 years, since he led an Eagles team that featured Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens. Getting to this point is unfathomably hard, and that’s why getting so close hurts that much worse. That sentiment was clear in a devastated 49ers locker room Sunday. They said all the right things: about their faith in Shanahan and the organization, about the amount of talent in the building, about how they’ll be back here again soon. But history tells us they won’t be, at least not next season. Only one Super Bowl loser in the past 25 years—the Pats in 2018—has returned to this game the following year. “You want to say, ‘Yeah,’” Kittle said when asked about his confidence in making a return trip. “But I think that every team that loses the Super Bowl says they’ll be back.”

Few ever get that chance. And for Shanahan, that chance is also a shot at redemption that eluded him on Sunday. Reid finally got his—and erased a decade and a half of questions in the process. Now, Shanahan’s wait to do the same begins.