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.
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.