Kyle Shanahan’s postgame mood ring is turning increasingly dark with every passing week, and every new defeat. The answers he provides are getting shorter, the effort to hide his exasperation is more evident, and the results remain . . . well, ick.
I mean, they keep going back to one topic – the inability of the San Francisco 49ers to craft, raise, nurse and ultimately send a lead in their weekly football games into the world to seek their fortunes.
Put another way, they don’t close worth a damn.
Monday’s failed attempt at glory, a 27-23 loss to the New York Football (More Or Less) Giants, was particularly irksome, as it allowed a skeptical and wearying punditocracy to remember that the 49ers start faster than their record says they should, and close worse than same. This time, the lead they purged was a 20-10 advantage midway through the third quarter, against a largely miserable Giants team with the same record and the same future prospects.
“It wasn’t one play, it was a number of plays,” Shanahan snipped. “I’m extremely disappointed. I think we put ourselves in position to win that game. Up 20-10 after that first drive in the third quarter, give up a big kick return right after that, followed by two explosives. Got them right back in it. We had our chances to step on their throat there and we didn’t, and we let them get back in it fast. We kept them around too long.”
But this is the business he has chosen, or at the very least the one his father helped him choose, and the fact that his team cannot yet make progress in the refined art of finishing makes some people think of coaching as a partial culprit, and Shanahan cannot offer a rebuttal without hurling the roster under the charter.
In short, he gets to be mildly exasperated, and that’s pretty much it. Then again, they all do.
“It’s not about finding lessons in this,” tackle Mike McGlinchey said. “We know what happened tonight. There’s no other excuse you can make. We had the game in our hands the whole second half and we just couldn’t finish. There’s no excuse for that. It doesn’t matter what lessons are learned.”
To be sure, much of why the 49ers don’t close well is because they are young and still well below the league-average talent line across the board. Monday’s game was not a hot mess per se, but it also not the neat, tidy closeout that good teams perform every week.
It’s basically an ouroboros – a snake eating itself, logically. The 49ers don’t close because they’re not good at closing, and they’re not good at closing because they don’t close.
See? Simple as explaining Planet X to a bunch of fifth graders.
[MAIOCCO: 49ers irked by Ahkello Witherspoon showing frustration after Giants TD]
Mostly, the 49ers don’t finish games well because they make just enough errors in critical moments to hose themselves. Monday, they took their 10-point lead after a smart and prolonged drive that ended with an 11-yard Nick Mullens-to-Matt-Breida touchdown pass.
And immediately afterward, they gave up a 51-yard kickoff return by Corey Coleman and a subsequent 30-yard completion from Eli Manning to Odell Beckham The Younger. Two plays later, the two hooked up again, and the 49ers’ command of the game ended in four plays and 93 seconds.
After a brief possession, they were forced to punt from their own 16, but they were not forced to employ a kick return interference call on Tarvarius Moore or endure a 27-yard jet sweep by Sterling Shepard on the first play of the series that led to a game-tying field goal by Aldrick Rojas. They just did those things on their own.
And they kept doing them – responding to an unnecessary roughness call on New York linebacker Alex Ogletree with a hold by center Weston Richburg, or a Mullens pass to Marquise Goodwin that was (a) behind him but (b) still catchable that ended up in the hands of linebacker B.J. Goodson.
Then, after an interlude that included what seemed like the winning field goal from 49er Robbie Gould with 2:46 to play, they doubled down on the not closing a thing, giving back every bit of Giants largesse with an immediate error or penalty that prolonged seemingly stalled drives and ending ultimately in the game-winning 3-yard score from Manning to Shepard.
These mistakes happen in lopsided games too, mind you, but nobody really notices them amidst the general shambles. In games that can be won, over teams no better than yourselves, they are migraines with heartburn and a side of lumbago. And they can only be weeded out by doing them again and again until they end up better than before.
“It comes with practice,” cornerback Richard Sherman said, “by being in these situations, by being able to compete when you’re exhausted. It’s just a thing that comes in time.”
Well, that was properly vague. But the process is vague. It happens until it stops happening, and not before. The ouroboros again.
At some point, perhaps they will figure it out and do it regularly – we don’t want to commit too hard to the inevitability of this notion, because it doesn’t happen all the time to all the teams to which it needs to happen.
But as it becomes increasingly evident that they have mastered the burped-up lead, Kyle Shanahan’s patience with this part of the process will wear thinner and thinner, mostly because we will keep asking when it will be fixed.
And the answer that is true but never satisfies is this:
When it does. You’ll know it when you see it.