LAS VEGAS — The overtime coin toss came down to a tailspin and San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan was faced with a decision never before made in Super Bowl history.
The new NFL playoff rule required each team to get the ball back at least once in overtime. That meant Shanhahan’s 49ers had the option of taking the ball first or sending it to Kansas City and kicking second — either by KC’s kickoff after a score, a punt or a turnover .
He chose to take the ball.
He should have chosen to finish second, not just because Kansas City ultimately turned a 19-19 tie into a 25-22 Super Bowl victory.
For San Francisco, the coin toss decision was the culmination of a disastrous second half that led to its second straight crushing Super Bowl loss to the Chiefs after leading by double digits.
To say there is a definitive answer – especially analytically – would be ridiculous. This is a scenario that has never happened before. Still, Shanahan’s 49ers should have been ready to make it happen, and several players admitted after the game that they didn’t know the new overtime rules.
Shanahan’s decision will be tested like many others in this loss: moving away from the running game that could have killed the clock, the offense’s inability to do much at the start of the third quarter- time and the fact that Shanahan now has three Super Brutals. Bowl losses – two to San Francisco plus a 28-3 lead against New England while he was offensive coordinator in Atlanta.
By choosing to receive rather than kick, Shanahan allowed the Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes to get the ball back with more information to factor into their play decision. It also meant less data for him.
When San Francisco drove down the field, little did they know Kansas City would end up scoring a touchdown. That’s why Shanahan said he “never thought” about going for it on fourth-and-4. Instead, the Niners scored a field goal.
This meant Kansas City knew it had to score and would never consider punting as an option.
So when the Chiefs faced fourth-and-1 from their own 34-yard line, they went for it. If this same scenario had happened on the first drive of overtime, Kansas City would have almost assuredly punted and allowed San Francisco to win with a field goal.
Instead, Mahomes made a smart 8-yard run, and the drive continued until he found the clay of the Lombardi Trophy.
Shanahan had to try to explain his thinking.
“None of us have much experience in this area,” he said. “But we went through all the analytics and talked to these guys. We just thought it would be better. We wanted the ball in third position. If both teams drew and scored, we wanted to be the ones with the chance to win.
He believed that if both teams were forced to punt, kick a field goal, or score a touchdown, then San Francisco would have the chance to score and win on the third possession. (Under the rules, Kansas City wouldn’t be guaranteed another chance.) Shanahan said giving his defense some rest didn’t play into the decision.
“Our biggest thing was that we knew both teams were going to get the ball at least once, so we wanted to make sure that if we won the toss, we would be the team that got it the third time ” Shanahan said.
This isn’t completely lacking in reasoning, but it’s carrying over a three-possession advantage into the future.
That means getting there…against Patrick Mahomes.
Allowing the Chiefs to take their chances on fourth down felt like a turnaround. It was a second chance for the most dangerous late-game quarterback in the game, and he burned them for it. The decision also allowed Kansas City to make second- and third-down calls throughout the drive, knowing there would be an extra play. This has incalculably changed decision-making.
And even in Shanahan’s scenario of getting the ball back on third down if both teams scored, that would only be the case if the Chiefs were held to a field goal. If San Francisco had scored a touchdown and Kansas City responded, head coach Andy Reid would have had the opportunity to win the game with a 2-point conversion.
Shanahan essentially gave away all the power and advantage to win the coin toss to Kansas City for the first two possessions of the game and needed a specific outcome to get to the point of the game and get it back.
“[We] I made that field goal, so [we] knew we had to force them to at least score a field goal, and if we did, we thought it was in our hands after that,” Shanahan said.
Unsurprisingly, Mahomes and Co. never gave him the chance.
In truth, this probably never should have resulted in overtime. While Shanahan said afterward that he had no overall regrets about the game (there are always regrets about certain plays), when he looks back he will likely focus on the missed opportunities early in the game. third quarter, when San Francisco held a 10-3 run. then 10-6 leads.
A quality score would have tipped the scales significantly in San Francisco’s favor. Instead, the 49ers offense imploded on three straight drives, going three-and-out each time, actually losing 2 cumulative yards and burning just 3:26 of the clock.
Kansas City was also in trouble, with the defending champions on the ropes and seemingly vulnerable to a knockout. But Shanahan, known for his innovative play, couldn’t deliver a single punch. The Chiefs continued to get lifelines and finally found their footing.
Eight of those nine plays were passes to Brock Purdy, with the Niners offense essentially moving away from star running back Christian McCaffrey — he had a run and a reception during that stretch.
“We didn’t escape the run,” Shanahan said in his defense, saying practices simply stalled. “…We couldn’t stay on the ground.”
McCaffrey finished with 22 carries. He probably needed 30.
There is no right way to lose the Super Bowl. Shanahan kept saying it. He ignored the fact that his teams continue to blow double-digit leads, noting, correctly, that he lost twice to Mahomes and once to Tom Brady.
Yet the losses at this stage persist, and he does not minimize the pain.
“We all suffered,” he said.
Perhaps this draw choice would not have changed this result. But that didn’t help. And this is unlikely to happen again from coaches in the future.