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Did the 49ers’ Decision to Receive in Overtime Cost Them the Super Bowl?

San Francisco chose to take the ball first in overtime. But with the new postseason rules, would the team have been better off giving it to Patrick Mahomes first instead?

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

Patrick Mahomes and Fred Warner met at the NFL shield at the 50-yard line of Allegiant Stadium for the overtime coin toss of Super Bowl LVIII knowing exactly what they were each supposed to elect if their team won the toss. The two captains had very different instructions from their respective head coaches—the Niners wanted their offense to have the ball first; the Chiefs wanted to kick and play defense to begin overtime.

Both coaches got their wish; Warner’s call of “tails” was correct—Brock Purdy and the 49ers got the ball first. You saw what happened next: The Chiefs defense held Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers to a field goal. Mahomes then led Kansas City on a 13-play, 75-yard drive and threw the game-winning touchdown to Mecole Hardman. Chiefs win, 25-22.

The result of that overtime period raises a question: Did Shanahan’s decision to receive cost the 49ers the Super Bowl?

“Ours ended up being the right one, but that easily could have gone the other way. But that’s what we felt was the right thing to do,” Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said after the game. “I’m never going to question Kyle, because he’s brilliant, but that was something we chose and, through our studies, we thought was important.”

It’s with hindsight that we can say Shanahan and the 49ers may have been better served to start overtime on defense. But it’s probably not so simple, and there was no precedent for Shanahan or Reid to work from. Sunday’s Super Bowl marked the first overtime postseason game since the NFL enacted new overtime rules in 2022 that ensure each team has a possession in playoff games. It is, in essence, a rule inspired by Mahomes, a change that was debated and then approved after Mahomes’s Chiefs won a divisional-round playoff game two years ago against Buffalo without the chance for Bills quarterback Josh Allen to touch the ball. (Mahomes’s Chiefs lost an AFC championship game in similar fashion in the 2018 playoffs, when Tom Brady’s Patriots won the toss and scored a touchdown.)

So what was Shanahan thinking here? He wasn’t considering the first possession, or even the second. He was thinking ahead to when the game would truly become sudden death—in the case that both teams scored a field goal, or a touchdown, or were held scoreless on that first possession, he wanted the 49ers in control of the ball next.

“None of us have a ton of experience with it, but we went through all the analytics and talked to those guys, and we just decided we wanted the ball third,” Shanahan said.

The problem was that he was planning for a future that he couldn’t guarantee would exist—quite a gamble considering Mahomes was on the opposing sideline. Mahomes had already led the Chiefs back from a 10-point deficit in this Super Bowl, along with leading two game-tying drives. The fact that the 49ers defense looked exhausted after being on the field for 11 plays on the Chiefs’ final drive of regulation didn’t factor into his decision to receive, Shanahan said.

Had the 49ers’ opening drive of overtime ended with a touchdown and not a field goal, Shanahan’s call might have looked like a brilliant move. But it backfired—and nearly backfired almost immediately. The Chiefs stopped San Francisco on first down, and a false start on second down put the 49ers behind the sticks. Purdy’s second-down throw went for just 2 yards, and his third-down pass fell incomplete, but a defensive holding call on Kansas City slot corner Trent McDuffie gave the 49ers a fresh set of downs. Had Kansas City forced a three-and-out there, the Chiefs very well could have quickly moved into position for a game-winning field goal.

Instead, San Francisco was able to meander down the field but was not able to find the end zone. After a 49ers field goal, Mahomes and the offense took over knowing they could extend overtime with a kick of their own—Harrison Butker had already made four field goals in the game, including a 57-yarder—or win the game with a touchdown. The Chiefs benefited from knowing exactly what they needed, prompting the team to go for it on a fourth-and-1 from their own 34 in what would have been a difficult decision had the Chiefs possessed the ball first (Mahomes converted with a nifty 8-yard scramble on a run-pass option). The Chiefs would convert two third downs to keep the drive moving, and Hardman’s touchdown ended it.

The Chiefs’ overtime plan worked out exactly how they had hoped—and it wasn’t by accident. Kansas City safety Justin Reid told The Ringer that the Chiefs had first discussed the new overtime rules as far back as training camp. Defensive lineman Chris Jones told me players were prepared for what to expect if the Super Bowl went to overtime.

“We talked through this for two weeks,” Jones said. “How we was going to give the ball to the opponent; if they scored, we was going for two at the end of the game. We rehearsed it.”

The 49ers did not do the same. Multiple San Francisco players said after the game that they were not aware that the overtime rules are different in the playoffs than they are in the regular season, and strategy discussions over how to handle the overtime period did not occur as a team. Defensive lineman Arik Armstead said he learned the details of the postseason rule when it was shown on the Allegiant Stadium jumbotron during a TV timeout after regulation. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk said he assumed the 49ers asked to receive when they won the toss because that’s what you do in the regular season, when a touchdown wins the game. “I guess that’s not the case. I don’t really know the strategy,” Juszczyk said.

Perhaps it only matters that Shanahan knew the strategy, one he came to with his assistant coaches and his analytics staffers. But given Shanahan’s history of heartbreaking postseason losses—this is his second Super Bowl loss as the 49ers head coach, and he was the Falcons offensive coordinator when Atlanta lost to the Patriots, also in overtime—it’s hard not to scrutinize such a critical decision. There will be plenty of moments Shanahan will replay in the weeks ahead, including Christian McCaffrey’s fumble just outside the red zone in the first quarter and the muffed punt that ricocheted off a 49er’s foot and led to the Chiefs’ first touchdown. But he might think about Warner’s walk to midfield and that coin flip forever.