MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The two men palmed their Coronas and stood guard outside the tiny white cinderblock office inside the 49ers’ locker room where Kyle Shanahan sat quietly on a grey swivel chair. He looked all at once like the young, cocksure wunderkind who stretched the limits of offensive theory in the NFL and an aging football lifer batted around by yet another unseen gut punch on the sidelines of the game’s biggest stage.
John Lynch, the 49ers general manager and a former player, and Mike Shanahan, the father and former head coach, have both been there. They’ve both seen cruel and twisted. They’ve both been amazed by the rise of the once-hapless 49ers under their figurative little brother and son, respectively, and they were both there for him now in a moment where they’d probably come the closest out of anyone at having the right words to say.
Assistant coaches changed and packed, making the short trip over from their dressing room to Kyle’s little sanctuary, hugging and smiling and frowning as if it were a receiving line at both a wedding and a funeral. But once the locker room was nearly empty, just before 11 p.m. in the underbelly of Hard Rock Stadium, both Mike Shanahan and Lynch piled into the office alongside Kyle and shut the door behind them.
“We’ll lick our wounds, and we’ll get over this,” Kyle said a few minutes before in a makeshift press conference tent a few yards outside of the stadium. He was patient and honest, seemingly in no hurry to fast forward through the public dissection of a loss. “We’ll be fired up for next year.”
We live in a world that is quick to strip perspective, weaponizing information that should never be presented without its proper context. Depending on who might see Shanahan during locker clean-out on Monday, on stage after the draft or at his eventual retirement party years and years from now, their perception of him may rest in moments like these. On paper, he has been the play-caller for two of the biggest blown leads in Super Bowl history—a 25-point advantage in Super Bowl LI as offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons and a 10-point advantage on Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs (three other teams, the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX, the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV and Broncos in Super Bowl XXII have also blown 10-point leads, tying them for second). On Sunday, the 49ers amassed that 10-point lead in the third quarter and held it until Patrick Mahomes’s touchdown pass to Travis Kelce with 6:13 remaining in the fourth. The Chiefs then scored two more times for a total of 21 unanswered points in the fourth to win 31-20.
Is Shanahan’s situation far more complicated than that? Yes.
NFL fans are not known for their nuance. Just look at the winning coach, Andy Reid. Did Super Bowl LIV just free Reid of a similar purgatory in the public eye as someone who couldn’t manage a game—this despite being a brilliant coach and play-caller for the better part of two decades?
Shanahan’s crimes on Sunday amounted to a few situational choices. At the end of the second half, with the score tied at 10, the 49ers stopped the Chiefs with 1:45 remaining on the clock and three timeouts. He did not use a single one of them, getting the ball back with 59 seconds left instead of almost twice as much (the 49ers nearly scored on that drive anyway, though tight end George Kittle was called on a questionable offensive pass interference—especially when considering the officials’ previous non-calls—that negated a catch that would have placed the 49ers at the Kansas City 12-yard line with six seconds left).
“They had three timeouts [also], and it was 10-10,” Shanahan said. “The last thing we’re going to do there is allow them to get the ball with three timeouts left, especially with their quarterback and offensive speed and go down and score before the half. Felt really good at 10-10, especially with us starting with the ball. I thought it played out alright.”
Then, in the third quarter, the 49ers opted to kick a 42-yard field goal on fourth-and-two instead of going for it with the most efficient running game in the sport. If he was that concerned about Mahomes’s quick-strike ability in the second quarter, causing him not to use his timeouts then, wouldn’t be be equally concerned about it in the third quarter, motivating him to try for more points?
Seeing Shanahan answer for the relative minutiae had to be grating for anyone that knew him. While coaches are ultimately scored on their ability to stack these little decisions atop one another, drive after drive, down after down, even the ones who wholeheartedly embrace the odds and analytics end up with their heart broken (just ask the Ravens a few weeks ago). One has to wonder if Shanahan felt any irony being asked why he didn’t run the ball more when the 49ers held a slender 20-17 lead at the end of the game, which is the exact opposite of the criticism he received as coordinator of the Falcons in Super Bowl LI.
“No, not at all,” he said, raising his eyebrows in a face that tiptoed on the polite side of are you kidding me? “The last thing you’re thinking about when you’re up three points and there is that much time left, the clock is not an issue at that time… the issue was moving the chains.”
Whenever that black door to the white office opened again, the emotional body guards could hopefully convince the head coach that time provides more chances to punch back. To convince the world of how wrong they are. To ride out the storms created by what amounts to exceptionally bad luck.
It’s not like Kyle doesn’t already know, either.
When asked if he felt good with a 10-point lead going into the waning moments of the Super Bowl, his answer nearly nipped the back end of the question off.
“No,” he said. “I don’t ever feel good until the game is over.”
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