We talk nowadays about the NFL being a passing league, a sport that’s all about the quarterback. Anyone who has suffered through the last two decades of Buffalo Bills football can attest to that fact.
There’s one other essential reality. If you hope to beat a team with a great quarterback, you can’t be timid about it. You can’t coach scared. When you have that QB down, you have to bury him. You’re not going to win with field goals against a transcendent talent.
The 49ers found out the hard way Sunday night. For 50 minutes, in the 100th year of the NFL, it seemed they were going to win the Super Bowl with a throwback model — play suffocating defense, run the football and get adequate play from your own quarterback.
They had a 20-10 lead with 10 minutes to play against the Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes. Their defense had confounded Mahomes for most of the night and picked him off for a second time in his first possession of the fourth quarter. The Niners were on the verge of history.
Then it all came apart. Mahomes, last year’s league MVP, led the Chiefs to three touchdowns in the final 6:13, stunning the NFC champions and validating himself as the most dynamic player in the sport as the Chiefs ended their 50-year Super Bowl drought with a 31-20 victory.
There were a lot of reasons for San Francisco’s loss. The Chiefs’ defense rose up in the fourth quarter after failing to force a punt all game. Mahomes made a huge 44-yard throw to Tyreek Hill when KC was desperate for a big play. Mahomes made several critical plays near the goal-line.
But the timid coaching of Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan was a huge factor. The man who constructed a team on old-school football principles fell victim to old, conservative coaching in the biggest game of all.
It was KC coach Andy Reid who made the bold calls in Super Bowl 54. Reid came in with the most regular-season wins (207) of any coach who had never won an NFL championship. He was looking once and for all to erase a reputation for never winning the big one.
Sometimes, you need to have big-game guts to win the biggest game. During the regular season, no NFL coach went for it on fourth down less often than Reid. The Niners’ defensive was the toughest in the league in fourth-and-short situations.
But facing fourth-and-1 at the Niners’ 5-yard line late in the first quarter, Reid went for it, after initially sending out his field-goal unit. Then he drew up a brilliant call, having his three guys spin around in the backfield like the Temptations before Damien Williams took a direct snap and took it 4 yards for a first down, leading to their first TD.
The Chiefs faced fourth-and-1 on their next possession, and again Reid went for it. This time, Mahomes ran the option to the right and pitched out to Williams, who ran 3 yards for the first down. The Niners held them to a field goal, but KC had made it clear they weren’t backing down.
Shanahan wasn’t nearly as ambitious late in the first half. After his defense stopped the Chiefs near midfield on third down, he didn’t call timeout, choosing to let the clock run as KC’s Dustin Colquitt punted the ball into the Niners’ end zone.
Clearly, the Niners were playing to get to halftime and keep the ball away from Mahomes. There were only 20 seconds on the clock when the Chiefs called timeout before a third-and-5 play. Shanahan finally called his first timeout after Garoppolo hit Jimmy Wilson for 20 yards.
Garoppolo then threw a gorgeous 42-yard pass down the right sideline to tight end George Kittle. But Kittle was called for interference for pushing off and the teams went to halftime with the score tied at 10.
Niners fans were upset with the interference call, which was legitimate. They should have been upset with Shanahan for displaying such weak clock management. Unlike Reid, he was playing it safe, and as the world prepared for Jennifer Lopez and Shakira’s halftime show, you have wonder if Shanahan’s passive coaching would come back to haunt him.
Sure enough, it did. There was another example early in the third quarter, when Shanahan went for the field goal that made it 13-10 rather than go on fourth-and-2. It seemed moot when the Niners jumped to a 20-10 lead.
But those cautious decisions have a way of coming back to bite you, especially against an explosive team like the Chiefs. How many times have Bills fans lamented conservative coaching against the Patriots, crying that you don’t beat Tom Brady by kicking field goals?
Niners fans will be uttering the same complaints after Sunday’s meltdown. Sure, there’s no guarantee they would have scored late in the first half by using their timeouts more aggressively. Maybe they would have been stopped on fourth-and-2 in the third quarter.
Still, when you’ve watched football for decades, you know what can happen when a great offensive team is allowed too many chances, when an opponent fails to put in the final nail and gives a team renewed hope.
You could sense it in the Chiefs after they forced the first Niners punt of the night with 8:53 left in the fourth quarter. One big throw by Mahomes, one pass interference call in the end zone, and suddenly it was 20-17.
The Niners were reeling, and while Jimmy Garoppolo had played admirably, he had never been in this kind of pressure cooker before, needing to make a big throw or two to keep a surging Chiefs team at bay.
Once Mahomes got KC back in front, Garoppolo was unable to answer. He took one deep shot on third-and-10 and badly overthrew an open Emmanuel Sanders. In the end, the Niners’ lack of playmaking wideouts caught up with them. They had no receiver with more than 42 yards and no pass play of more than 26.
Their defense was sensational for 50 minutes, harassing Mahomes into the worst game of his young career. Sadly, the game is 60 minutes long. Shanahan found that out four years earlier, when he was the offensive coordinator of a Falcons team that blew a 16-point lead to the Patriots in the final 10 minutes of regulation.
Having suffered that sort of defeat, you’d have expected Shanahan to be aggressive as a head coach, not to take the soft, conservative approach against the best quarterback in the league. Mahomes was a worthy MVP. He threw for 286 yards — less than his career average — and two touchdowns, plus the first two interceptions of his playoff career. It was a heroic effort, but far from his best. The game was there for the taking, and the Niners couldn't follow through.
That loss to the Patriots has followed Shanahan around ever since. Now he has another squandered opportunity on top of it. You have to crush a great quarterback when he’s down. You’d think he would have learned that by now.
Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York, as well as the host of The Jerry Sullivan Show from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. weekdays on 1270 AM The Fan. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.