Why Kyle Shanahan 'freaked out' on Robert Saleh with 49ers game in hand

Why Kyle Shanahan 'freaked out' on Robert Saleh with 49ers game in hand

MIAMI, Fla. — With a few minutes left on the game clock in the NFC Divisional Playoff, the 49ers were up 27-10 over the Minnesota Vikings. Hosting the NFC Championship Game at Levi’s Stadium was a lock. 

Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh wanted to lighten the load of his starting linemen and get the backups some reps. It was the first playoff game for the 49ers since 2013, but Saleh was feeling confident that the game was in the bag. Little did he know, Kyle Shanahan did not approve.  

“I freaked out at Saleh when he tried to take the starters out in Green Bay, or was it Minnesota?” Shanahan said Tuesday. “Yeah, it was Minnesota when we were up like three scores with two minutes to go and I freaked out. 

“And then I did the math and I thought it was alright, but you get some scars from that stuff.”

Shanahan still feels the effects of the Falcons’ collapse in Super Bowl LI when he was the offensive coordinator for the club. Blowing the infamous 28-3 lead left a traumatic mark on the 49ers coach that likely will never disappear. 

“Everybody asks what I learned from that Super Bowl and everything,” Shanahan said. “I wish I could say there was some easy answer that would have fixed us not blowing that lead but you know, I go back and am hard on myself about everything. 

“I know the plays I wish I would have called differently, especially the second-and-11 pass once we got down there that led to a sack, so I wish I called a run there, but that was about it.” 

Shanahan will never take the foot off the gas again, especially when facing top quarterback, like Patriots Tom Brady. Shanahan felt similar pangs of stress in the NFC Championship Game with a 14-point lead on the Green Bay Packers knowing all too well what Aaron Rodgers is capable of.  

[RELATED: Shanahan convinced Sherman to sign with 49ers over Lions]

The situation will be no different on Super Bowl Sunday against the speed of the Kansas City Chiefs' offense and the incredible talents of Patrick Mahomes, who quickly racked up 41 unanswered points on the Houston Texans in the divisional round after falling behind 24-0. Shanahan will want to keep the 49ers' starters on the field no matter what the scoreboard reads. 

“You realize when playing against good teams and good quarterbacks that you can never relax.”

Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers Super Bowl coverage with special editions of “49ers Central” all week (8 p.m. Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. Thursday, 9:30 p.m. Friday, and 3 p.m. Saturday).

Also tune in at 1 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday for a two-hour special of "49ers Pregame Live" with Laura Britt, Donte Whitner, Jeff Garcia, Ian Williams, Kelli Johnson, Greg Papa and Grant Liffmann. That same crew will have all the postgame reaction on "49ers Postgame Live," starting immediately after the game.

George Kittle defends JImmy Garoppolo from Stephen A. Smith criticism

George Kittle defends JImmy Garoppolo from Stephen A. Smith criticism

All season long, Jimmy Garoppolo faced criticism, most of it unwarranted.

As the 49ers racked up the wins, Garoppolo kept on taking arrows. He was seen as the weak link on a team that started 8-0. Even when Garoppolo delivered in the clutch late in the season against the New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams, he was bashed for being a game-manager.

One of Garoppolo's loudest critics was ESPN's Stephen A. Smith, who locked horns with 49ers tight end George Kittle Tuesday on "First Take," as the People's Tight End went to bat for QB1.

"That's wild," Kittle said when asked about the belief that the 49ers can't win the Super Bowl with Garoppolo. "You guys can say what you want to say about Jimmy G. I think he has like 25 wins as a starter, a Super Bowl a year after his ACL tear, a fantastic leader. He had a pancake in that Vikings game on the linebacker. That was pretty impressive.

"I'm pretty sure he's also the best quarterback on third down all season last year. He makes plays. He gets guys the ball that need them, and he's a fantastic quarterback. He's the reason we got to the Super Bowl. We don't get there without him. You saw what happened. We went 4-12 without him (in 2018), and we go 13-3 with him (in 2019). He's a pretty damn good quarterback, in my opinion."

Smith then chimed in, saying his doubts about Garoppolo are based on the fact that he believes the quarterback wasn't one of the main reasons the 49ers went to the Super Bowl since the team was so loaded with talent.

Kittle wasn't having it.

"How is that his fault? It's not his fault he's on a really good team with good football players and a great head coach," Kittle said. "He got us to the Super Bowl, so that's what I'm saying. It's not his fault he has Nick Bosa, he has five first-round D-linemen, he has Richard Sherman in the secondary. That's not his fault. He goes out there and he performs week in, week out. Like I said, leads the league in third-down percentage. He makes throws. He won us two games versus Arizona. He won us the Rams game at the end of the game. He won a shootout with Drew Brees, who, in my opinion, is one of the best quarterbacks to do it. I mean, he shows up every single week.

"Yeah, guys have bad plays," Kittle continued. "I've had my share of bad plays. His are just viewed more because he's a quarterback. He's the franchise quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, so people see that more. And he deals with it. He doesn't shy away from criticism. He goes in, he had a great conversation after the Super Bowl. He was great with the media. He doesn't shy away. He's a leader through and through, and he's the leader of this football team."

After knocking off the rust following his ACL surgery, Garoppolo emerged as a dynamic signal-caller who coach Kyle Shanahan could rely on to make clutch plays to win games.

Garoppolo had the keys taken away from him during the 49ers' first two playoffs games, as Shanahan elected to run it down the throats of the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers to punch his team's ticket to Miami.

[RELATED: 49ers' best, worst draft picks in each round]

Under the bright lights of Super Bowl LIV, Garoppolo shook off an early interception and played well in the middle part of the game. But with the title on the line, Garoppolo overthrew a wide-open Emmanuel Sanders on what could have been the game-winning touchdown with 1;40 remaining. He was sacked on the ensuing fourth down play and the Chiefs sealed a 31-20 win.

There's no doubt that overthrow and the host of criticism that's been thrown Garoppolo's way will be one of the motivating factors in next season's revenge tour.

Best, worst 49ers picks in each round over the past decade of NFL Draft

Best, worst 49ers picks in each round over the past decade of NFL Draft

The 49ers have experienced a few home runs, along with many swings and misses, over the past decade of NFL drafts.

Here are their best and worst picks in each round since 2010. (Beginning with the fifth round, there is no need to list worst picks.)

First round

Best: Although the 49ers selected Arik Armstead in the first round the previous year, the 49ers went back to defensive tackle to land DeForest Buckner at No. 7 overall in 2016. Buckner was the team’s best player for most of the four seasons he played for the club. Buckner was so good that the 49ers got four years out of him and then flipped him this offseason to the Indianapolis Colts for the No. 13 overall pick. The Colts awarded Buckner a contract that pays him $21 million annually. Armstead (2015), Mike McGlinchey (2018) and Nick Bosa (2019) are also looking good.

Worst: The 49ers traded up to get back into the first round to select Joshua Garnett in 2016. That made little sense at the time because there seemed to be a disconnect between GM Trent Baalke and coach Chip Kelly as to the kind of linemen who were fits for the system. Garnett started 11 games as a rookie, then battled injuries and is now out of the league. Reuben Foster (2017) and A.J. Jenkins (2012) did not turn out well. Solomon Thomas could ultimately go down as the worst pick because of the great players the 49ers passed up at No. 3 overall to select him.

Second round

Best: It could end up being wide receiver Deebo Samuel (2019) or safety Jaquiski Tartt (2015), but for now the best selection goes to Colin Kaepernick, who was an effective quarterback for the team on its 2012 run to the Super Bowl and the following season. Kaepernick started 58 regular-season games for the 49ers, during which time the club went 28-30.

Worst: The 49ers selected running back LaMichael James in 2012 despite Frank Gore having plenty of good seasons left in him. James appeared in just 15 regular-season games. He never scored a touchdown and lost five fumbles with the club, including a big turnover in the Super Bowl. The selection of Taylor Mays (2010) was pretty bad, too. He lasted just one season before he was traded away.

Third round

Best: The third round has been a sweet spot for the 49ers to find linebackers. NaVorro Bowman (2010) is the best third-round selection for the 49ers of the past decade. Fred Warner (2018) managed to step in as an immediate starter -- something even Bowman did not accomplish. Bowman was a four-time All-Pro selection whose career was cut short due to injuries.

Worst: This is a toss-up between Will Redmond (2016) and Corey Lemonier (2013). We’ll go with Redmond because he was one of Baalke’s many ACL picks that never panned out. Redmond never played a snap for the 49ers. To his credit, Redmond saw action in 13 games with two starts last season with the Green Bay Packers. Lemonier was a pass-rusher who registered just one sack for the 49ers in 42 games.

Fourth round

Best: There’s not a lot from which to choose for the 49ers in the fourth round. But based on his longevity -- most of it after leaving the 49ers -- the honor goes to offensive lineman Joe Looney (2012). Looney has started 30 games in his career, mostly with the Dallas Cowboys. He started four games with the 49ers in 2014.

Worst: This is also a difficult call for different reasons. Running back Marcus Lattimore (2013) was a person of such high character that the 49ers thought it was worth the gamble. But even he says he was shocked the 49ers drafted him because of his significant knee injury. There were plenty of red flags in the past that should have warned the 49ers against drafting cornerback Rashard Robinson (2016) or running back Joe Williams (2017). At least the 49ers somehow got a fifth-round pick from the New York Jets at the 2017 trade deadline. Therefore, the worst pick was Williams. GM John Lynch’s instincts were to keep him off the team’s draft board. But Kyle Shanahan fell in love with the tape, and Lynch decided to trade up to select him in the fourth round.

Fifth round

Best: This is no contest. George Kittle (2017) set the NFL single-season record for most receiving yards from a tight end in just his second NFL season. He is a superstar.

[RELATED: Kittle, trainer are making his workout available to fans]

Sixth round

Best: Nose tackle D.J. Jones (2017) worked his way into a starting role toward the end of his second NFL season. He played well last season as the starter, and could be asked to do more as a pass-rusher this season as the team looks to compensate for Buckner.

Seventh round

Best: Offensive tackle Trent Brown (2016) started 28 games in three seasons for the 49ers before the club traded him to New England, where he won a Super Bowl. He then signed a huge contract with the Raiders in free agency last season and was named to a spot on the AFC Pro Bowl team.