By Kathir Ilango • 17 Feb 2020 • 17 min read
After finishing the 2016 season with 2 wins, the San Francisco 49ers decided it was time to try something new. They went into full-rebuild mode, giving six-year contracts to new head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch. Prior to their hiring, Shanahan was an accomplished play caller who was only 37 years old, while Lynch was a commentator for Fox Sports who had zero front office experience. It was certainly a gamble, but one that ultimately paid off as Shanahan and Lynch completely rebuilt the team from the ground up (46 of the 53 players on San Francisco’s roster were brought in by the new regime) and within three years, got the Niners to the Super Bowl for a shot at their sixth title.
They ended up losing the game to Kansas City after holding a 10 point lead with under 10 minutes to play in the game, and blame has been thrown around various Niners players and coaches to explain the loss. But to truly understand what cost the 49ers the Super Bowl, it is important to know how this team really works and what makes it tick. Once you realize what this team really is, it becomes clear that it wasn't the defense or even the quarterback that cost the Niners the trophy; it was their play caller and head coach Kyle Shanahan himself. Let's look at Kyle Shanahan, the offense that he built in San Francisco, and what led to its fall in Super Bowl LIV.
Kyle Shanahan is the son of Mike Shanahan, a former NFL coach considered by many to be one of the greatest offensive minds in NFL history (won Super Bowl XXIX with 49ers and XXXII and XXXIII with Broncos). Although Kyle played wide receiver at a Division-I school, he ultimately followed in his father's footsteps and became a coach in the NFL at a very young age. After spending years as an offensive quality control coach and quarterback coach with various teams, he got his first offensive coordinator job with the Houston Texans in 2008 at the age of 28. Over the next nine seasons, Shanahan served as the offensive coordinator for various teams and was incredibly successful:
Outside of the dysfunctional organization that is the Cleveland Browns, Shanahan was able to build all of his other offenses into Top-10 products. The 2016 Falcons were Shanahan's masterpiece; they displayed a surgical attack that scored the 7th most points in NFL history and netted quarterback Matt Ryan the league MVP award. They even took a commanding 25 point lead in Super Bowl LI before infamously blowing it and losing the game in the span of 22 minutes. The tough loss to end that historic season brings us to Shanahan's tenure in San Francisco as a head coach.
Entering his third season as the Niners head coach in 2019, after a couple of rocky and injury-riddled seasons to begin his head coaching career, Shanahan had finally put together the team he envisioned from the start in San Francisco. Despite coming off a previous job where he was known for his high-flying passing offense in Atlanta, he was still his father's son, and Mike Shanahan was known for finding unknown running backs and making them great behind a brilliant scheme. Kyle has been no different in San Francisco:
Having three running backs, two of whom were not even drafted, in the Top-35 is a typical Shanahan staple. Mike Shanahan did this consistently in his time by having his backs play behind small but fast offensive lines. The goal was to open up gaping holes for the backs with speed and precision in blocking rather than pure power. The exact same philosophy went into the construction of San Francisco's offensive line:
The Niners have one of the NFL's best, if not the best, combination of light weight and speed in their offensive line. Having a line that gets downfield into the second and third levels of the defense faster than most allows San Francisco's running backs to gain huge chunks of yardage at a time and pick up tremendous speed while doing so. The average maximum speed by San Francisco's ball carriers on run plays this season was 13.27 MPH, the fastest in the NFL.
The 49ers rushing attack has Shanahan DNA smeared all over it, and Kyle Shanahan doesn't hesitate to make it the focal point of his entire offense. The Niners ran the ball on 51% of their offensive snaps this year, the second-highest clip in the NFL. But while the run game carried San Francisco to many wins, the other 49% of the offensive productivity was still important and proved to be the deciding factor in Super Bowl LIV. After all, Shanahan became a front-running head coaching candidate behind his creative aerial attack in Atlanta, which brings us to the hotly-debated man that Shanahan chose to be his quarterback in San Francisco: Jimmy Garoppolo.
Garoppolo receives copious amounts of criticism by most people who watch him, but he is in many ways exactly the quarterback that Kyle Shanahan wants to run his offense, and he put that on display in his first full year as a starter in 2019. To begin with, the beauty of Shanahan's offense comes on play action pass plays. His understanding of what defenders are instructed to do in certain situations combined with his running identity allows him to blow coverages wide open when he fakes handoffs and dials up plays downfield. This is what made Atlanta so deadly in 2016, and Garoppolo's ability to make splashes off of play action has allowed Shanahan to do the exact same thing in San Francisco:
Garoppolo is given play action calls at the third-highest rate in the NFL, and while his overall passer rating is nothing special (101.8), play action Jimmy G. is the third-highest rated quarterback in the NFL (113.4). Shanahan dials up play action often, and Garoppolo gets the job done with incredible efficiency. On third down, Garoppolo's passer rating of 101.9 is also very solid. Moreover, Garoppolo does not throw the ball deep very often. In fact, his lack of deep ball throwing coupled with his tendency to throw the ball up for grabs every once in a while is what makes many critics lack faith in him:
While it appears that Garoppolo may be a poor deep ball thrower, his passer rating when going downfield is 105.2, almost 20 points above the league average and actually higher than Garoppolo's overall passer rating of 101.8. It's not that Garoppolo can't throw deep; Shanahan simply doesn't dial up such throws for him. Instead, Shanahan focuses the passing game on something else that explains Garoppolo's above-average rate of turnover worthy plays: the middle of the field.
If there's one statistic that the Niners offense is known for above anything else, it's YAC: Yards After the Catch. The way that Shanahan generates the YAC is by designing his plays to target the middle of the field, allowing his receivers to catch the ball with plenty of momentum and a lot of real estate around them so they can carry on for another chunk of yards before being tackled. This idea is well-reflected by Garoppolo's decisions on the field:
No quarterback in the NFL has a higher percentage of his targets go to routes that break inside than Garoppolo, as 50% of his throws go towards the middle of the field. Slinging the ball over the middle of the field constantly is surely dangerous, which explains Garoppolo's tendency to put the ball in harm's way more often than average. But Shanahan's philosophy is clear; he has built his passing game on the ability to gain YAC and, once again, Garoppolo has proven his ability to put that vision into action. Of the top 10 receivers and tight ends in the NFL for YAC, two play for the Niners:
Shanahan brings in personnel based on his scheme that allows Garoppolo to thrive. Last year, when he was looking for a receiver, he could have easily drafted a monster like D.K. Metcalf who could out-muscle almost anyone, but he wasn't looking for size and strength. He instead drafted Deebo Samuel from South Carolina, a smaller player with speed, great hands, and fearlessness as a ball-carrier because those are the traits that make a great YAC receiver. George Kittle is no different at tight end.
It's clear that Shanahan has built every cubic centimeter of this offense the exact way that he wanted to. Garoppolo isn't asked to do too much thinking. Plays in the NFL where the quarterback doesn't have to make any read before throwing the ball (screen passes, etc.) are typically referred to as "scheme" looks. Garoppolo actually has the second highest percentage of such looks behind only rookie quarterback Kyler Murray:
There is nothing mysterious about Jimmy Garoppolo. The media wants to criticize him because he is not Aaron Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes, but Kyle Shanahan doesn't need him to be. He knows what he needs from Garoppolo and Garoppolo delivers it well: an efficient game manager who is good on third down and takes what Shanahan gives him down field. Sound familiar? There may be a certain six-time Super Bowl Champion quarterback with extremely similar traits.
Overall, the combination of a powerful run game and Garoppolo's efficiency in doing what Shanahan asks of him is what makes the Niners offense tick. This is the offense that Shanahan brought to the Super Bowl and ultimately failed with. The question we have finally arrived at is: what happened? The answer is rather complex, but can be simplified to one big idea. At the big moments in the game, Shanahan didn't become overly aggressive or even overly conservative. He instead became something worse than both of those things: scared and predictable. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, with his ability to put up points in seconds, put enough fear into the 49ers play caller to the point that the flashy, quick, and creative Niners offense was reduced to a few predictable tendencies when it mattered most. As a result, Kansas City was able to pounce and take the trophy right out of Shanahan's hands.
Now that we have a thorough understanding of San Francisco's offense, it's not hard to see that as they blossomed with Kyle Shanahan's play calling, they came crashing down just as fast when the puppet master himself made bad decisions. The Super Bowl started off fairly well for San Francisco; Shanahan opened the game with a couple of his classic reverse handoffs to Samuel and the Niners marched to the Chiefs' 20 yard line, where they ultimately settled for a field goal. After Kansas City responded with a touchdown, Garoppolo made his first big mistake of the game: an ill-advised floating ball right into the hands of Chiefs defensive back Bashaud Breeland. Kansas City consolidated the pick with 3 more points.
Normally, having a young quarterback that just threw an interception in a big game would cause a head coach to dial the offense back a little to let his guy get into a rhythm again. But Garoppolo has a quality that allows Shanahan to pretend as if the interception never happened; he is beyond excellent on drives following an interception:
In other words, Garoppolo right after throwing a pick is the best quarterback in football. Shanahan was well aware of this and did not hold back on the next drive. Along with a couple of great running plays, post-interception Jimmy G. went 3-for-3 for 42 yards and a touchdown to fullback Kyle Juszczyk. The first throw was a scheme play to Samuel and the next two were off play action to the middle of the field: a textbook Kyle Shanahan drive to tie the game.
Shanahan's first big blunder came at the end of the half. The game was tied at 10 and the Niners stopped Kansas City with about 1:45 left in the half; instead of calling a timeout, Shanahan decided to let the clock run down to start his drive with 59 seconds left. After a few plays, the Niners had the ball at their own 45 yard line with just 14 seconds left, but Shanahan had something in mind. One of his specialties is his ability to exploit mismatches at opportune times and embarrass defenders. In this case, he had the perfect mismatch dialed up to justify his tanking of 40 seconds just a minute ago. Kansas City came out with six defensive backs. Two safeties were about 11 yards off the ball and Shanahan had his three wide receivers (and thus three Chiefs cornerbacks) lined up to Garoppolo's left, leaving tight end George Kittle isolated with backup safety Daniel Sorensen on the right.
Surely enough, Kittle got separation and Garoppolo dropped the ball right in his hands for about 40 yards. Unfortunately, Kittle pushed off on the play even though he didn't need to, and the play was nullified due to the penalty. With just six seconds left, the first half, and thus the Niners' drive, came to an abrupt stop. Shanahan later admitted that he tanked the 40 seconds because he did not want to risk Kansas City getting the ball back with enough time to score, in case they stopped him deep in his own territory. He made his decision out of fear of what the Chiefs were capable of and as a result, he put all of his chips in on a play that was neither creative nor clever but rather reactive and forceful. He could have taken the timeout and had plenty of time to engineer a proper drive, but fear made him waste a potential scoring drive and cost San Francisco a halftime lead.
Shanahan came out strong in the second half. The Niners kicked a field goal on the opening drive and after Mahomes threw an interception, got the ball back in good field position. Garoppolo fired another three lasers over the middle of the field, two of which were off play action, for 52 yards and San Francisco found the endzone. This would be the last time they scored all night. Kansas City eventually scored a touchdown with 6:13 left in the game and cut the lead to 3 points, 20-17. The next two San Francisco drives contained a sequence of events that made Shanahan look silly and won Kansas City the game.
On the drive following Kansas City's score, on a 2nd down and 5, Garoppolo fired a ball that was intended for Kittle short in the middle of the field, but Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones jumped up and swatted the ball with perfect timing. The drive ended after Kansas City blitzed on 3rd down and Garoppolo launched the ball out of harm's way. Then, with 2:44 left in the game, Kansas City scored a touchdown and took the lead. San Francisco came back onto the field and on 1st and 10 at midfield, Garoppolo fired a ball to Deebo Samuel over the middle that was blocked by Jones again. What was going on? It's extremely difficult for a defensive lineman to block a throw, let alone do it twice in the span of two drives in a Super Bowl. The answer lies in the numbers.
In both of the plays that Jones swatted the ball, Garoppolo's intended receivers (Kittle and Samuel) were lined up in the slot to his right. Garoppolo's average distance of throw in 2019 to each of these receivers was 6.1 and 7.6 yards respectively. Based on his 2019 targets, Garoppolo's probability of throwing inside on routes within that range is almost twice as high as his probability of throwing outside (29% vs. 15% respectively). But that's not all. Kittle and Samuel are Garoppolo's favorite targets by a mile:
More than 40% of his completions go to these two receivers, and among his pass catchers who aren't running backs, Kittle and Samuel are in the top 3 in terms of the speed at which Garoppolo gets the ball out of his hands. The moment Kittle and Samuel lined up in the slot on their respective plays, Chris Jones knew two things: this receiver is going to break into the short middle of the field and the ball is coming out fast. What Shanahan thought were high-percentage plays were actually the most predictable sequences of the game. Jones was simply timing Garoppolo and throwing his hands up to block the passes; Shanahan's plays in crunchtime were undone not by brilliant coverage, but by a defensive lineman that just did his homework.
On the play immediately after the blocked pass to Samuel, Shanahan tried to mix it up a little with a deeper throw over the middle to Kendrick Bourne. Jones didn't get the block, but at this point the Chiefs secondary had a feel for what was going on. Safety Kendall Fuller simply sat on the route, dove into the passing lane, and nearly got an interception. On 3rd down, Shanahan took a shot to the endzone to Emmanuel Sanders (the exact same play that won San Francisco their week 16 game vs. the Rams) and Garoppolo overthrew the ball. By 4th down, the Niners offense had lost all its energy from the previous three plays and Garoppolo inevitably took a sack. With 1:25 left in the game, the Super Bowl was over. Kansas City put the icing on the cake with a final touchdown and the game ended with a score of 31-20.
It's ridiculous to blame Garoppolo for missing on a 49 yard bomb to the endzone on 3rd down in a Super Bowl with under 2 minutes to go. It's equally ridiculous to blame San Francisco's defense when they were getting almost zero rest due to their offense's lack of productivity the entire fourth quarter. The fact of the matter is that in the moments of truth, Shanahan worried so much about getting a single first down at a time that he lost sight of how to break the defense over a sequence of well-arranged plays, and instead went for seemingly high-percentage calls that Kansas City had studied all week. When his team needed to move the football more than ever, he lost his identity and let them down. Heading into the Super Bowl, everybody fully expected Kansas City's defense to commit to stopping the run and force Garoppolo to make some plays, and Garoppolo did what was expected of him. If the Niners had won, he would have been the MVP. He took what was given to him by his coach as he had all year. His coach was simply not giving him the right stuff.
After Super Bowl LI and now Super Bowl LIV, Shanahan and Super Bowls have become a dynamic duo in all the wrong ways. He's only 40 years old and he will likely be coaching for decades to come. He's too good not to. He's built a culture in San Francisco that any team would die for. He has his players playing selflessly and his coaches believing in everything he does. The way that NFL executives speak of him would have you believe that he is the second coming of Bill Belichick. Kyle Shanahan will win a Super Bowl someday, but until then, he's officially got a monkey on his back.
Sources: Pro Football Focus, ESPN, pro-football-reference.com, playerprofiler.com