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Kyle Shanahan's game management could cost the 49ers in the playoffs

There weren't very many 49ers that had a good game on Saturday - most of all Kyle Shanahan.

Almost all of his game management issues stem from one misguided core philosophy: Don't lose the game.

Let's look at his biggest mistakes one by one.

The clock management at the end of the first half

It is clear that Kyle Shanahan's thinking at the end of the first half/game is broken. His first priority is using too much clock for the other team to have time to score, particularly when he's getting the ball after halftime.

He cares about it so much that whether or not his own team actually scores points becomes secondary to him. Shanahan himself admitted as much after the game when he was asked about not being more aggressive and the first words out of his mouth were, "I like that they didn't score. I like that we won at the end of the day."

The 49ers had the ball in enemy territory with 1:19 left and all three timeouts and Kyle's big takeaway was that he was happy that the other team didn't score.


I have never seen a head coach live more in his fears than Kyle Shanahan - particularly an offensive specialist.

In case you forgot, here's the situation:

The 49ers are ahead 7-6. There's 1:19 left in the half, it's 2nd and 5, they're at the Packers' 46 yard line, and they have all three timeouts.

Shanahan runs the ball with Christian McCaffrey, who gains 3 yards.

Kyle then lets the entire 40 second play clock expire and burns his first timeout with 34 seconds left.

On third down, Brock Purdy hits Jauan Jennings for 5 yards to move the chains. Kyle calls timeout number two with 28 seconds left.

On first down, Brock Purdy checks the ball down to CMC for 8 yards. Not wanting to use their final timeout, the 49ers then spike the ball on second down.

Now the 49ers are looking at 3rd and 2 from the Packers' 30 yard line with just 14 seconds to go in the half. Their third down pass falls incomplete, and the Niners have to settle for a 48 yard field goal in the rain which is eventually blocked.

In other words, the 49ers had the ball at the Packers' 46 yard line with 1:19 remaining in the half and all three timeouts. They ran 5 plays, gained 8 yards, missed a field goal and still went into the half with one timeout.

At the simplest level, clock management is about trading yards for time (or timeouts). In this situation, the 49ers essentially traded 8 yards for two timeouts and a down (the spike). Moreover, they left themselves only one chance to try to score a 30 yard touchdown.

Clearly that's a terrible outcome - unless your primary goal was simply to use up the rest of the clock. Shanahan insisted after the game that he was trying to score on the possession, but added, "That's how it works out. We make sure they don't get another chance, but it's not like we were just playing for a field goal."

What Shanahan fails to realize is that simply avoiding the worst-case scenario does not help you achieve the optimal outcome - in fact many times it makes it more difficult. The only reason the 49ers had a lead at that point was because Shanahan's defense held the Packers to field goals instead of giving up touchdowns. So why on Earth did Kyle voluntarily all but eliminate his chance at a touchdown simply to try a long field goal in the rain?

I have said it over and over again. In almost every situation, field goals are failures. They represent the failure of the offense to score a touchdown. They should almost never be the best-case-scenario of a possession.

Kicking the ball short of the end zone

The 49ers kickoff coverage unit is not good. We know this. They know this. Broadcasters have told us that when George Odum was injured last month, the 49ers told Jake Moody to kick the ball out of the end zone because they weren't confident in the coverage unit's ability to handle kick returns.

Now that George Odum is back, however the 49ers have resumed kicking the ball short of the end zone in an effort to gain a few extra yards by tackling the returner before the 25 yard line. They did this on Saturday, even against the Packers and Keisean Nixon, who led the NFL in kick return yardage this season. Nixon eventually burned the Niners with a 73 yard kick return in the second half immediately after Christian McCaffrey's incredible 39 yard run gave San Francisco the lead and the momentum.

Why would the 49ers allow even a 1% chance for that to happen?

Over and over and over again we have seen that the only way the 49ers lose games is if they give the ball away or allow explosive plays. One of the only opportunities for opponents to get an explosive play against them comes on kick returns.

The 49ers could completely eliminate this chance simply by kicking the ball out of the end zone every time. Instead, they're willing to risk letting the other team stay in the game just for the possibility of a drive starting a handful of yards further away from the end zone.

Kicking the ball out of the end zone would eliminate a weakness of the team and play into one of their strengths at the same time by forcing opponents to move the ball against their defense. Instead, Shanahan opens the door to that weakness hurting them in a playoff game.

Not having a backup plan once Deebo Samuel went down

For much on Saturday's game, the 49ers' back was against the wall. They were frequently trailing, Brock Purdy was struggling in the rain, and the offense clearly didn't have a backup game plan without Deebo Samuel.

You would think the 49ers offense would be ideally suited to handle the loss of one player considering the wealth of stars they have on that side of the ball. For the second time this season, however, Kyle Shanahan's team was unprepared to deal with an injury to a member of his offense.

“It changes a lot of stuff," Shanahan said after the game, "You just got to switch some guys around, which is always a challenge for those guys. It happened during the Cleveland game. We didn't handle it that well. I thought we handled it better today than we did then. But it is a huge challenge. Deebo’s obviously one of our better players, but he also is a unique guy that goes to some certain spots, so you got to be adjusting that all game.”

A football player getting injured during a football game cannot derail your offense. Especially one with this much talent. Especially with a play-caller this good. Especially when it already happened earlier this season. Especially in a playoff game.

You would think the team whose season ended when they literally ran out of quarterbacks would make sure it was prepared for every situation that might arise during a game. Apparently not.

Kyle must have the team better prepared to adapt against the Lions, who excel at game management. It's one thing to bungle situations when the other team is just as conservative. Do it against an aggressive coach like Dan Campbell and the impact of those mistakes is magnified.

For the record, I love Kyle Shanahan as a head coach. I've stated many times that there's no one else I would rather have coaching this team, and I stand by that regardless of how this season ends. That doesn't mean, however, that I cannot criticize Kyle Shanahan and point out areas where he has room to improve.

And he can improve, by the way. All of these issues are completely fixable, the question is whether Shanahan is open to fixing them, and whether someone in the organization is brave enough to point them out.

267 views3 comments


Feb 17

I could not agree more. Every time I watch them play a good team I feel frustrated that the coach is so bad with the strategy nuances that determine the outcomes of close games. Andy Reid is probably twice as smart as Shanahan so he'll need help if they ever get to play them again. I count his mistakes and there are at least 3 or 4 in EVERY game. They still get lucky sometimes but they should not be relying on luck to win the big games. Sometimes it goes against you so you need a BIG lead which means scoring touchdowns as often as possible instead of running out the clock on yourself.


Jan 24

You think he would have learned after he lost a Superbowl. But no. If John Lynch wasn't Kyle's b----, he might have insisted Kyle get some help with his end of half "strategy." He needs it.

Jan 24
Replying to

That's exactly right. Shanahan isn't held accountable for his role and his calls. I guarantee you that Lynch isn't having that conversation with him and (thankfully) Jed isn't wading into it either. But unless there is a direct conversation with accountability Shanahan thinks that the calls he made were the right ones. As he put it "...we won the game." Next time, as so many times in the past, he may not be that lucky.

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