Kyle Shanahan is not a timid head coach. He’s an innovative play-caller who’s proven he’s willing to take risks. His 49ers often have been aggressive in going 13-3 this season, then winning two straight playoff games.
Yet at the end of the first half of Sunday’s Super Bowl in Miami, he uncharacteristically went ultra conservative, and it may have cost his team in its eventual 31-20 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Shanahan decided not to call a timeout with 1:53 remaining in the first half and the Chiefs facing a fourth-and-13, with the game tied at 10-10.
That allowed the Chiefs to run down the clock – even as 49ers general manager John Lynch was making the motions to call a timeout from up high in the team’s luxury box – so San Francisco had just 59 seconds left in the half when it got the ball from Kansas City on its own 20-yard line after a punt.
Shanahan called two running plays, then had Jimmy Garoppolo throw deep to George Kittle. The play connected for a 42-yard gain, but was wiped out by offensive pass interference. If it hadn’t been negated, the 49ers would have just about 14 seconds to try to get a score before the half. San Francisco then kneeled and ran out the clock.
If Shanahan had used a timeout to stop the clock before the Chiefs punted, and been a bit more aggressive with his play-calling and use of timeouts before the half, it’s possible San Francisco could have scored a field goal or touchdown – a score that could have changed the complexion of the game in the fourth quarter, when the Chiefs rallied for the victory.
After the game, Shanahan told reporters he was OK with the game being tied, especially knowing the 49ers would receive the kickoff to open the second half.
Some analysts argued, however, that Shanahan’s lack of aggression in that situation proved costly.
Nate Scott of USA Today called it a "perplexing decision," especially against a team as explosive as the Chiefs. San Francisco would need every point it could muster to beat them.
Wrote Scott: "Why? Why all of it? Why go timid, not call a timeout, run twice … then start going for it? Shanahan was letting the Chiefs dictate his play-calling, and not dictating it for himself."
Shanahan, however, said he didn’t want to keep too much time on the clock, because if the Chiefs had gotten the ball back, they could have scored – especially with still having three timeouts.
"The last thing we were going to do was allow them to get the ball with three timeouts, especially with their quarterback and offensive speed, to go in there and score before the half," he said. "I felt really good, 10-10, especially with us starting with the ball (in the second half). I thought it played out all right. I thought we should have gotten points, but then ended up calling that (pass interference) on Kittle, so that took it away."
Niners fans have plenty of time to think about it, and debate it, over the next seven months until the start of the 2020 season.