What Kyle Shanahan's fourth-quarter Super Bowl play-calling should tell us

What Kyle Shanahan's fourth-quarter Super Bowl play-calling should tell us

Kyle Shanahan abandoned the run when the 49ers had the Kansas City Chiefs on the ropes.

If he had just stayed with the ground game, the 49ers would have run out the clock, demoralized the Chiefs and the 49ers would own their sixth Lombardi Trophy.

Instead, he enabled Kansas City to rally from a 10-point deficit for a 31-20 victory in Super Bowl LIV on Sunday night at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla.

Everybody is looking for aspects of the 49ers’ loss to second-guess and find blame. It comes with the territory. And for a team that made it to the Super Bowl on the power and deception of its running game, it only stands to reason that is where people would first look.

So hold on a second while we find the specific examples of where Shanahan repeatedly called pass play after pass play when it was obvious he should have kept grinding out running plays.

Hold on just one second as we get that information for you.

OK, here we go ...

The 49ers led by 10 points with 11:57 after Tarvarius Moore’s interception of Patrick Mahomes at the 13-yard line. Raheem Mostert picked up 6 yards on first down. The 49ers should have run the ball again on second down.

But Jimmy Garoppolo hit George Kittle with a 12-yard pass on second down, so Shanahan can be forgiven for that play call.

On first-and-10, Mostert picked up just 1 yard. OK, Shanahan was justified in calling a pass on second and 9. An incompletion and a false start led to a third-and-14 situation.

That drive was not a good example of Shanahan abandoning the run, so let’s move on to the next series.

When the 49ers took over again with 6:13 remaining, Kansas City had cut the lead to 20-17. The 49ers’ first offensive play was from their own 20-yard line.

Mostert gained 5 yards on first down, setting up a second-and-5. It was wide open for Shanahan to run or pass. The Chiefs had eight defenders in the box. At this stage of the game, Garoppolo had completed 18 of his 22 pass attempts.

Garoppolo faked an inside handoff to Mostert, who if he had been handed the ball would have run into the teeth of the Kansas City defense to the left. Kittle, lined up in the right slot, was wide open for what would have been at least a 10-yard gain in the middle of the field.

But defensive tackle Chris Jones made a play that could rank as the Kansas City’s most important defensive play of the game. He lined up over left guard Laken Tomlinson. Then at the snap, he slid across center Ben Garland and toward right guard Mike Person. Jones was able to get only 2 yards of penetration but he got his hands up in time to bat down the pass at the line of scrimmage.

That set up a third-and-5 play, and it should not be a surprise to anyone that the 49ers tried to throw the ball in that situation. Garoppolo’s pass intended for Kendrick Bourne was incomplete and the 49ers were forced to punt.

The next time the 49ers touched the ball, they were trailing 24-20 with 2:39 remaining. They had to go 85 yards for the go-ahead points.

Mostert gained 17 yards on first down. After a false start, the 49ers passed on first-and-15. That was reasonable. Garoppolo hit Kittle for 8 yards. Then, Bourne made a 16-yard catch to pick up a first down.

On first-and-10 from the 49 with 1:49 remaining, the 49ers were set up to run or pass. Again, Garoppolo had an open receiver -- this time, Deebo Samuel -- and, again, Jones batted the ball down at the line of scrimmage.

Second-and-10, incomplete. Third and 10, incomplete with an overthrow on a deep pass intended for Emmanuel Sanders. Sack on fourth down. Game over.

Up until the fourth-down sack, the 49ers averaged 7.8 yards every time Garoppolo attempted a pass. The 49ers averaged 6.4 yards running the ball.

To look at the raw numbers is one thing. The 49ers attempted 22 run plays compared to 32 passes for the entire game, including the fourth-down sack of Garoppolo that wrapped up the Kansas City victory.

[RELATEDWhy 49ers' stunning 2019 season will be nearly impossible to replicate]

There were a lot of reasons why the 49ers squandered a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter. The pass rush was a step behind Patrick Mahomes. The 49ers had coverage issues on the back end. The offense missed at least one chance for a big play.

It might be easy to find fault with the 49ers’ run-pass ratio. But it is more difficult to find specific instances when Shanahan was just plain wrong to choose pass over run.

But everyone is judged on the results.

Shanahan’s two questionable fourth-quarter decisions of pass over run looked to be good play calls – until the moment they were batted down at the line of scrimmage.

And, ultimately, how those plays turned out is all that will be remembered.

NFL free agency: Should 49ers pursue Bengals' A.J. Green in offseason?


NFL free agency: Should 49ers pursue Bengals' A.J. Green in offseason?

A.J. Green last played in an NFL game on Dec. 2, 2018. He injured his toe that game and underwent season-ending surgery shortly after. 

Green then missed all of last season as the Cincinnati Bengals' star receiver dealt with an ankle injury. And yet, he's one of the biggest names set to hit free agency. So, should the 49ers go take a run at signing the seven-time Pro Bowler?

Talent-wise, yes. But it's not that simple. 

Green, who turns 32 years old on July 31, has played nine games the last two seasons. He has missed 29 games since 2016 and isn't getting any younger. But he also is one of the most talented receivers in the league when healthy. 

The former No. 4 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft started his career with five straight seasons of at least 1,000 receiving yards. He was well on pace to extending that streak in 2016 when he had 964 receiving yards in 10 games and then had 1,078 in 2017. 

San Francisco simply doesn't have any receivers with his kind of pedigree. Deebo Samuel opened eyes as a rookie, and he is dangerous with the ball in his hands. The 49ers have to add talent around the young South Carolina product, though. 

Green also is the kind of large target coach Kyle Shanahan hopes to add for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Samuel is listed at 5-foot-11 and 214 pounds. Green, however, is 6-4 and 210 pounds.

One NFL executive believes Green hopes to move on from the Bengals this offseason, too. 

"I think he wants out of Cincinnati," the exec told ESPN's Jeremy Fowler. 

That, however, isn't in Bengals coach Zac Taylor's plans

"He's a guy that we're excited about to have part of this team, first and foremost. That’s what matters right now," Taylor said Thursday in his interview on the '"Bengals Beat Podcast." "As we go through the offseason, we'll figure out how it best fits. But right now, we expect him to be a part of the team. We want him to be a part of the team.

"He's certainly been a valuable member for the last couple years and done some great things. I'm excited to coach him, really for the first time this next season."

Green signed a four-year, $60 million contract with the Bengals in 2015. He will be an unrestricted free agent for the first time this offseason, and the veteran still could sign another hefty contract. The same executive told ESPN that "even 'B' receivers are getting $14 million to $15 million."

The 49ers currently have just under $17.9 million available in cap space this offseason, according to Spotrac. San Francisco also has its own contracts to take care of in free agent Arik Armstead, as well as extensions for George Kittle and DeForest Buckner. 

[RELATED: Why 49ers could add Gabriel to receiver mix this offseason]

One way or another, the 49ers should look to give Jimmy G more weapons this offseason. This year's NFL draft class is loaded with receivers and the front office could make that their priority with their first pick. There's no doubt Green could be a great option in free agency, but it all comes down to health. 

"As long as the foot checks out, he's still elite," an NFC personnel evaluator said to ESPN. 

That's a big if, though. Green is one talented question mark.

49ers roster analysis: Work needed to keep up defensive line dominance

49ers roster analysis: Work needed to keep up defensive line dominance

This is the sixth installment of a nine-part series that examines the 49ers’ roster coming out of the 2019 season, looks ahead to 2020, and outlines the offseason challenges facing general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan on a position-by-position basis.

We continue with a look at the 49ers’ defensive line.

Under contract (signed through)

-Dee Ford (2023)
-DeForest Buckner (2020)
-Nick Bosa (2022)
-Solomon Thomas (2020)
-D.J. Jones (2020)
-Jullian Taylor (2021)
-Kentavius Street (2021)
-Kevin Givens (2021)
-Willie Henry (2020)
-Ray Smith (2021)
-Alex Barrett (2021)
-Jonathan Kongbo (2022)

Buckner is scheduled to play on the fifth-year option of $14.36 million, but the 49ers would like to work out a multi-year contract extension for him and likely see his cap number come down this year.

Ford’s $13.65 million salary for the 2020 season becomes fully guaranteed on April 1. Ford signed the lucrative deal a year ago after coming from the Kansas City Chiefs in a trade for a second-round draft pick.

Thomas is scheduled to enter the fourth and final year of his rookie contract. The 49ers will not pick up the fifth-year option for 2021, but it is not out of the question he could return beyond this season on a significantly reduced contract.

Expiring contracts

-Arik Armstead (UFA)
-Ronald Blair (UFA)
-Sheldon Day (UFA)
-Damontre Moore (UFA)
-Anthony Zettel (UFA)
-Earl Mitchell (UFA)

The 49ers could use the franchise tag on Armstead, but that would require the team committing more than $19 million to him for the 2020 season. The 49ers prefer to re-sign Armstead to a multi-year extension for a lower annual average.

What needs to happen

The 49ers had tremendous depth along the defensive line, but it never seems to be enough at this position. That is why the 49ers will always be looking for more players at this spot. The 49ers could use another outside pass rusher capable of six sacks on the season.

Armstead will cost the most to retain among all the 49ers’ free agents. How high are they willing to go? Lynch made it sound as if the team is focused on a long-term contract, rather than the fallback of merely placing the franchise tag on him.

It might be even a greater priority to work out a long-term extension with Buckner, who enters the final year of his contract. All you need to know about how Buckner is viewed inside the organization became evident when the coaching staff voted him as the winner of the Bill Walsh Award.

Blair and Day are scheduled for unrestricted free agency. Blair served an important role as a backup nickel pass-rusher. His absence after he sustained a torn ACL in the middle of the season was felt. Blair could have taken some of the pass-rush snaps to enable others on the defensive line to remain fresh.

Day could be a starter somewhere else. But when Jones slated to start again this season at nose tackle, the 49ers are not likely to pay much to retain him as a backup.

[RELATED: Why 49ers' O-Line is in good shape for immediate future]


The 49ers defensive line was dominant last season. It was San Francisco's strength, and they need to be even more dominant this season.

Bosa quickly established himself as a star. Buckner is another star. Ford has to take the necessary steps in the offseason to make sure the 49ers do not lose him for long stretches of time next season.

Armstead gives the 49ers exactly what they need. He’s a base defensive end who moves inside to rush the passer in nickel situations. If he returns, the 49ers should have the best collection of defensive linemen in the league. If Armstead is not back, the 49ers must add a lower-cost option who fits the scheme and minimizes the drop-off.

Thomas will be back for his fourth season with the 49ers, and there is no reason why he can't produce significantly more in 2020 as a rotational player.