49ers coach Kyle Shanahan doesn’t deserve criticism since Super Bowl

Globe Staff
Updated February 17, 2024, 9:38 a.m.
Kyle Shanahan has been on the defensive all week following the 49ers’ 25-22 overtime loss to the Chiefs in the Super Bowl. The criticism directed at Shanahan from commentators and fans has been pointed and unforgiving.
He still can’t win the big game. He got out-schemed again. He blew it in overtime by taking the ball first. His players didn’t even know the overtime rules! Can you believe he had the gall to fire the defensive coordinator?
No one loves a rip job better than me, but most of the criticism thrown at Shanahan has been unfair or unfounded.
First, let’s talk about overtime. Shanahan has taken heat because his players admitted that they didn’t know that the overtime rules are different in the playoffs than in the regular season (in the postseason, each team is guaranteed a possession). The Chiefs, meanwhile, had specific conversations about the rules with their players in the days leading up the Super Bowl. Of course, the Chiefs were the impetus for the rule change, following their overtime playoff victory in January 2022 in which the Bills never possessed the ball.
The 49ers’ ignorance was not a great look for Shanahan, but the controversy is overblown. Whether the players knew the rules, the 49ers would still run the plays that were called. Fans would be shocked at how many players don’t know NFL rules — remember Donovan McNabb admitting in his 10th NFL season he didn’t know that teams could tie?
All that mattered is whether Shanahan and the 49ers coaches knew the overtime rules, and they clearly did. Shanahan said he and his analytics department decided going into the playoffs that if they reached overtime, they would choose to have the ball first.
Which leads to the second criticism: Shanahan blew it by taking the ball first instead of second in OT. Perhaps, but it’s not an egregious mistake.
Shanahan’s logic was “we wanted the ball third. If both teams matched and scored, we wanted to be the ones who had the chance to go win.” Shanahan also said he felt his defense was tired and would benefit from extra rest.
It’s actually a sound strategy. The analytics community modeled it out — there isn’t enough real-world data yet since the rules are so new — and determined that the team that takes the ball first would win slightly more than 50 percent of the time. It certainly isn’t a definitive decision one way or the other.
Where Shanahan potentially erred was not factoring in that had the 49ers scored a touchdown, and then the Chiefs matched it, Kansas City was going to go for 2, thereby preventing a third possession. But had the 49ers held the Chiefs to a field goal in OT, the 49ers would have had the first crack at a sudden-death win.
“Our analytics felt that was the best way to go,” Shanahan said Tuesday. “It did seem more like a field goal game. And our defense had been out there for a real long time right before that. So, I didn’t feel at all to override that at the time.”
Shanahan also has taken criticism for being out-schemed by Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. It’s true that the 49ers managed just two touchdowns in 12 possessions, and that the Chiefs were able to scheme up nine unblocked pass rushers, a handful of which significantly altered the game.
It wasn’t Shanahan’s finest game, but it’s not like the 49ers choked. Brock Purdy had a solid performance against a relentless Chiefs blitz, with a touchdown pass, 101.0 passer rating, and just one sack in 21 blitzes. The 49ers still scored 13 points on their three possessions in the fourth quarter and overtime. And they had a shot at a touchdown in overtime, but the backup right guard, who entered the game because of an injury late in the third quarter, had an assigment error and neglected to block Chris Jones on third and 4.
“I should have just played within the scheme,” said the backup, Spencer Burford. “I played on instinct. It was my fault.”
On the 49ers’ last play of the game, the key third down in OT:
You can see Aiyuk up top come wide open in the end zone, and Kittle leaking open over the middle. But the Niners had a communication error up front and didn’t block Chris Jones. pic.twitter.com/F0rSX2ygDV
— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) February 12, 2024
On Wednesday, the criticism of Shanahan intensified when he announced that he had fired defensive coordinator Steve Wilks after one season. The move did look curious, as the 49ers finished No. 3 in scoring defense this season, and held the mighty Chiefs to 25 points in 13 possessions in the Super Bowl.
But Wilks’s firing was a long time coming, not based on one game. Wilks was an outside hire last year with no previous experience with the 49ers’ staff, and he ran a different scheme than the Seattle Cover 3 with which the 49ers were familiar.
After a Week 7 loss to the Vikings, Shanahan expressed frustration that Wilks called an all-out blitz at the end of the first half, resulting in a 60-yard touchdown for Jordan Addison. After the Week 9 bye, Shanahan sent Wilks from the sideline to the coaching booth. And in the playoffs, the 49ers’ run defense was a mess, allowing 149 yards per game and 5.1 yards per carry.
“It just ended up not being the right fit,” Shanahan said Wednesday.
Finally, Shanahan is taking plenty of heat for not being able to win The Big One. He’s becoming the 1990s Bills of this generation, or Andy Reid when he couldn’t win the big game with the Eagles. Shanahan is 0-2 in the Super Bowl as a head coach, and 0-1 as offensive coordinator (2016 Falcons). He has lost the only two overtime Super Bowls in history. He was on the wrong end of 28-3. And he lost two recent NFC Championship games.
All fair criticisms. At the same time, the Chiefs were incredibly lucky throughout the playoffs, and especially so in the Super Bowl — the muffed punt, the blocked extra point, Christian McCaffrey’s fumble, the protection breakdown on third and 4. The game had seven fumbles, and the Chiefs recovered six of them. If any of those plays go the 49ers’ way, they may win. And there’s no shame in losing two Super Bowls to Patrick Mahomes, who has established himself as this generation’s Tom Brady or Michael Jordan.
Using our framework, 2023 KC had the most win prob added via luck of any playoff team since 2018.
Most significant plays for KC:
- BUF missed FG with 1:47 left (+18.7%)
- BUF dropped 54 yd pass with 8:23 left (+18.3%)
- Recovery of SF muffed punt with 2:42 left in Q3 (+15.6%) pic.twitter.com/KJdtZrxrqU
— Tom Bliss (@DataWithBliss) February 13, 2024
“I mean, you’d love to fix perception,” Shanahan said. “But to say that the Niners can’t win a big game would be an extremely inaccurate statement. The fact that we keep getting there shows you guys how much we’ve been able to win big games.”
The 49ers certainly let the Super Bowl slip through their grasp. And there must be a handful of decisions that are keeping Shanahan up at night. But the criticism of Shanahan is over the top.
Spagnuolo made
all the right moves
Grafton’s Steve Spagnuolo took down Tom Brady in the Super Bowl as the Giants’ defensive coordinator, and he was masterful again last Sunday, switching up all of his tendencies.
The Chiefs blitzed on 51.2 percent of Brock Purdy’s dropbacks, their fourth-highest rate in a game in Spagnuolo’s five years with the team. The Chiefs also switched from a zone-heavy scheme to man coverage after Purdy started the game 8 for 10 for 105 yards. The 49ers faced man coverage on 64 percent of dropbacks, their second-highest rate of the season (71 percent in a Week 6 loss to the Browns). Purdy went 15 of 28 for 150 yards the rest of the way.
“Them playing man, maybe it was something we just weren’t expecting a whole lot of,” Purdy said.
The man coverage coincided with Spagnuolo calling a Cover 0 blitz — an all-out rush with no deep safety — on a whopping 21.4 percent of snaps, the highest rate the 49ers faced all season.
Purdy held strong, but the 49ers’ offensive line didn’t do as well. Spagnuolo created nine unblocked rushes, which included Trent McDuffie disrupting a crucial third-and-5 play late in regulation, and Chris Jones forcing a throwaway on third and 4 in overtime.
“The Chiefs did a good job of scheming things up and catching us off guard at some points,” Purdy said.
The Chiefs’ dominant defensive performance had many people wondering, most notably the Dolphins’ Tyreek Hill, why Spagnuolo hasn’t been getting any interviews for head coaching vacancies. Spagnuolo, 64, went 10-38 in three seasons as the Rams’ head coach (2009-11), and hasn’t received much interest since. He has won three Super Bowls as Chiefs defensive coordinator.
Last week, Spagnuolo received some unlikely support — from Rams CEO Kevin Demoff, who fired Spagnuolo in January 2012. On an X thread, Demoff explained how Spagnuolo “inherited a mess” in 2009 and that “nobody would have had success” with what he dealt with — an ownership change, inexperienced leadership, a messy salary cap, and the 2011 NFL lockout.
“I was too over my head to help fix the problems quickly. I should have been better for him,” Demoff said. “He inherited an awful situation and did the best he could to make it better. We became a better organization with him as our head coach.
“An amazing human deserving of the real shot we couldn’t give him.”
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Some final words
on the Super Bowl
▪ The conspiracy theorists who believe the NFL wanted the Chiefs to win have more ammunition. The Chiefs, who led the NFL with 30 offensive holding penalties during the season, weren’t called for any in Sunday’s win. In fact, they haven’t been flagged for holding in any of their last three Super Bowl wins. There were a handful of non-calls against the Chiefs that certainly could have been flagged.
Was Nick Bosa right about the Chiefs? 🤨 pic.twitter.com/NSa47Iuia3
— The 33rd Team (@The33rdTeamFB) February 13, 2024
▪ The 49ers’ muffed punt late in the third quarter had a massive effect on the outcome, increasing the Chiefs’ win probability from 27 to 48 percent. The touchdown to Marquez Valdes-Scantling on the next play increased it to 55 percent.
▪ Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones is an impending free agent who could be in line to make at least $30 million per year if he’s willing to test the market. His agents probably weren’t thrilled when Jones took the microphone at the championship parade and screamed, “I need three of these rings! We ain’t done yet! I ain’t going nowhere, baby!” But the Chiefs may have some work to do to keep Jones, with Travis Kelce also likely to seek a pay raise.
▪ Chiefs defensive line coach Brendan Daly is running out of fingers. Daly has won six Super Bowl rings in the last 10 years — three with the Patriots (2014, 2016, 2018) and three with the Chiefs (2019, 2022, 2023). Daly has coached in eight of the last 10 Super Bowls.
▪ There were 13 kickoffs in the Super Bowl, all touchbacks. The competition committee will be working hard at the NFL Combine and owners’ meetings the next two months to come up with rules to increase the return rate and make the play relevant again.
▪ 49ers safety Logan Ryan played 62 of 79 defensive snaps and finished with seven tackles. Ryan, a former Patriot, signed in December and played eight games with the 49ers, coming up short in his bid for a third Super Bowl ring. GM John Lynch relayed that Ryan was on a Disney cruise with his family when the 49ers called. “He said, ‘Give me 10 days,’ ” Lynch said.
One and done for Amendola
Danny Amendola last played in the NFL in 2021, and after a year off, decided to get back in the game as a coach. Josh McDaniels hired Amendola with the Raiders to be a coaching assistant with a focus on kick returners. But Amendola decided that the coaching lifestyle isn’t for him.
“I think I’m good on the coaching thing for a little bit,” Amendola said this past week on Rob Ninkovich’s podcast, “The Dan and Ninko Show.” “I wanted to go in and feel if I felt any of that competitive juice on game day. You know what, it was there, but it’s so hard to replace actually playing in the game. A lot of it felt like work and a lot of it felt — it’s just hard to replace that feeling you get of that competitive nature when you’re not playing.”
Amendola said he’s going to try his hand at real estate in Austin, Texas.
Extra points
The NFL announced Friday that Raiders quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will be suspended the first two games of the 2024 season for violating the policy on performance-enhancing substances. Per the policy, the two-game suspension means it was for a stimulant, diuretic, or masking agent. And the penalty will be costly for Garoppolo. The Raiders already were going to release him before March 18, when he has an $11.25 million roster bonus due. But the suspension allows the Raiders to void the guarantees on Garoppolo’s $11.25 million base salary, which he would have collected had he played in 2024 or sat on his couch. Garoppolo, 32, will probably have a hard time matching that salary as a free agent this offseason . . . The Patriots will have a tough decision with the No. 3 overall draft pick. Outside linebacker Matthew Judon said on Cam Newton’s “4th & 1″ podcast this past week that he wants LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels. “If he’s there, I’d take him,” said Judon. “He won the Heisman. You can see the arm talent. You can see the leg talent. You have to have a mobile quarterback in today’s game when stuff breaks down and for him to get out of sticky situations.” Judon’s opinion could make for some awkwardness if the Patriots pass over Daniels for another player . . . With renovations being done to their training facility, the Saints are poised to hold training camp in Irvine, Calif., per ESPN. It will be a much more cooperative climate than New Orleans, where the August humidity can be so oppressive it ruins practices . . . Chandler Jones took to X this past week to apologize for his erratic behavior over the past year, which included arrests for violating a domestic violence protective order and several unhinged video rants on social media, leading to his release from the Raiders. “I’m happy to share that I’m feeling much better now,” Jones said. “I want to express my heartfelt gratitude to my family, friends, and fans for your unwavering love and support. Additionally, I want to offer a sincere apology to anyone I may have unintentionally offended. Your understanding and support mean the world to me.” . . . A reminder of how much the collective bargaining agreement is skewed against players — the 49ers aren’t allowed to give Brock Purdy a pay raise this offseason even if they wanted to. The CBA prevents all drafted players from renegotiating their contracts until after their third year. So Purdy, fresh off an overtime Super Bowl appearance, is locked into his minimum salary of $985,000 next season.

By Ben Volin
Filed 02.18.2024

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