MIAMI — The most famous comeback in Super Bowl history — maybe sports history — happened in Super Bowl 51 three seasons ago.
Everyone knows the Patriots role in it. The credit for the tsunami of playmaking on both sides of the ball when all margin for error was spent is shared between dozens of players and coaches.
But when the blame is ladled out, it mostly falls on the shoulders of one man. Former Falcons offensive coordinator and current Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan.
Shanahan wasn’t responsible for the ineptitude that led to blockheaded holding penalties, Matt Ryan’s lack of pocket awareness, or the defense’s inability to get off the field. But he was the one calling the shots when his team blew a 28-3 lead. And he was the one who, after Atlanta had reached the Patriots' 23 with four minutes left and a 28-20 lead, dialed up a first-down throw. That throw turned instead into a sack. Then came the hold. Then came an incompletion. Here came the Patriots.
I asked Shanahan if Sunday is an opportunity to drive a stake through the heart of that memory.
“Not really,” he said. “I know it comes off that way from a media standpoint, the narrative. I’d like to drive a stake through that if it works out right. But that stuff, as a coach, it was harder for me early in my career.
“The four years in Washington (as offensive coordinator from 2010 to 2013) helped me a little bit where you start to realize that you can’t worry about what everyone says, you just got to prepare and do as good as you can and not hesitate.
“Sometimes when you worry about being blamed for stuff that’s when you will hesitate and make mistakes. I go through everything. I’m always hard on myself but I try to lay it out there, lay it on the line and not try to play it safe. We’ll see what happens this week but that’s how I treated every game before that Super Bowl, that’s how I treated that Super Bowl and that’s how I’ll treat every game going forward.”
Even though he was victimized by Bill Belichick — a longtime friend and admirer of Shanahan’s father, Mike — the Patriots head coach went out of his way to be gracious with the younger Shanahan after SB51, calling Shanahan to check in with him after the loss.
“I know him and my dad had a good relationship through the years, I remember when the Broncos beat the Patriots (in the 2005 playoffs), Bill coming into my dad’s locker room and talking to him. I got kicked out, but I remember my dad saying how cool it was, him coming over after they had lost and talk ball with him. He knew he was just a true football guy and loved talking ball any time.
"It was cool how Bill reached out to me after the Super Bowl just to talk and it was cool to spend some time with him at the Combine which I was very appreciative of (Belichick and Shanahan reportedly met “for hours” at the Combine). Any time that guy talks, everyone in the world listens. Especially someone like me who’s aspired to be a coach and tried to do things like he’s done.”
Belichick’s warmth for Shanahan didn’t stop at comforting words. When he was out of options for what to do with prized backup Jimmy Garoppolo, Belichick sent him to Shanahan and the 49ers straightaway in October of 2017. Belichick initiated the transaction with a text to Shanahan requesting the Niners coach call him. That’s when the ask — a second-round pick — was made.
This was a part of Belichick’s statement after he dealt Garoppolo.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Jimmy,” he said. “I couldn't ask for him to give us any more than he's given us. The 49ers are getting a good player, and they're getting a good person, and they're getting a great teammate and they're getting a good quarterback. Jimmy is getting a good coach. His career is moving forward. He's a talented individual, was a great person to coach. I met with him weekly and, again, have a tremendous amount of respect for him. As his career moves forward we have to look to our team, both this year and beyond, and that's a consideration we have to make.”
It’s abundantly obvious that sending Garoppolo to a good football home was a priority for Belichick. And he believed Shanahan would provide that.
“Having someone like Bill say something like that is as cool a compliment as I can have so that feels great,” Shanahan said when asked to reflect on Belichick’s comments. “Hopefully that’s true. But I’m very glad he felt that way because I feel very fortunate that we were able to get Jimmy.”