Super Bowl LIV was great, especially if you traffic in takes.
The fourth quarter of the Kansas City Chiefs' 31-20 win over the 49ers on Sunday began with a perfect narrative setup. A 49ers win, and coach Kyle Shanahan would firmly put 28-3 in the rearview mirror while Chiefs coach Andy Reid Still Can't Win The Big One. A Chiefs victory? Shanahan Blew It Again and Reid has Career Validation.
A day later, Reid now surely is headed to the Pro Football Hall of Fame because of the Chiefs' win -- never mind that his 207 in the regular-season are the seventh-most in NFL history, and that Marty Schottenheimer is the only retired coach with at least 200 wins who doesn't have a bust in Canton, Ohio. Shanahan, meanwhile, now carries the reputation Reid just shed as the NFL's most talented offensive mind who can't get it done in big moments.
Kyle Shanahan's 7 career drives as play caller in 4th quarter of Super Bowl:— Josh Dubow (@JoshDubowAP) February 3, 2020
3 plays, fumble
6 plays, punt
4 plays, punt
5 plays, punt
3 plays, punt
7 plays, turnover on downs
2 plays, INT
With Sunday's loss and the Atlanta Falcons' infamous Super Bowl LI collapse against the New England Patriots, Shanahan has now been the offensive play-caller for two of three teams to blow double-digit leads in the fourth quarter of a Super Bowl. That's an ignominious distinction, and Shanahan has played his part in earning his newfound label, just as Reid did with his clock management.
But as was the case for Reid, it's simply too reductive. If any number of small moments go the other way Sunday, the conversation surrounding Shanahan's play-calling looks much different.
George Kittle was called for offensive pass interference late in the first half, erasing a 42-yard gain that would've left the 49ers in the red zone. What happens if Chris Jones doesn't get a hand on Jimmy Garoppolo's pass to Kittle -- who was isolated on aging defensive end Terrell Suggs -- with 5:25 left in the fourth quarter? What happens if Garoppolo doesn't airmail Emmanuel Sanders?
You can ask similar questions about the Falcons' loss to the Patriots three years ago, when Shanahan's crushing loss came at the hands of another generational quarterback. Tom Brady facilitated Atlanta's collapse, and Patrick Mahomes facilitated San Francisco's. Could you say that Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan or Garoppolo was the better QB in either matchup? Before he coached Mahomes, arguably the most-accomplished 24-year-old quarterback in NFL history, Reid's teams lost to Tom Brady (twice), Kurt Warner (twice), Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Tony Romo, Andrew Luck and Ben Roethlisberger.
The Chiefs lost to Brady again last year, meaning 10 of Reid's 14 postseason losses have been at the hands at seven of the best quarterbacks this century. Kurt Warner is a Hall of Famer, and Brady, Brees, Rodgers and Roethlisberger surely will join him in Canton. The NFL is a quarterback-driven league, and the signal-callers play an outsized role in every game. Brady and Mahomes' greatness played a big role in Shanahan's losses, too.
Of course, the NFL also is a league defined by parity. Teams play, at maximum, 20 regular-season and playoff games in a single campaign. Shanahan has been the play-caller in all of seven playoff games, and two of those 28 quarters face deserved scrutiny. Yet sport with so much variance -- year-to-year, week-to-week, quarter-to-quarter and play-to-play -- boiling down a coaching career to two distinct 15-minute periods fundamentally discounts football's inherent randomness.
The 49ers won 13 regular-season games a year after winning four. Garoppolo's health, Raheem Mostert's emergence, and the acquisitions of Nick Bosa, Deebo Samuel, Kwon Alexander and Dee Ford accounted for so much of that improvement. San Francisco also lost four games in 2018 by seven or fewer points and won by similarly small margins in 2019.
This is not to absolve Shanahan's decision-making, whether at the end of the first half or in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIV. However, any number of 49ers -- on both sides of the ball -- bear much of the burden of Sunday's loss, too. They also lost to a quarterback well on his path to all-time greatness.
The bright lights and big stage naturally lead to the need to ascribe a Deeper Meaning to the participants in the spotlight. But when you strip it all away, things are sometimes just as simple as they seem.