Santa Clara, Calif. — Kyle Shanahan’s play calls from his first trip to the Super Bowl as an offensive coordinator have been heavily scrutinized.
That’s to be expected after Shanahan’s Falcons blew a 28-3 lead to the New England Patriots and lost in overtime three years ago in part because Atlanta was unable to run out the clock or add to the lead.
Shanahan is back in the title game as head coach for the San Francisco 49ers. That’s led to a rehashing of that game in Houston even if Shanahan has put it far behind him.
“Not much at all anymore, to tell you the truth,” he said this week when asked if he still goes over that game.
“You do it every second. The days after were real tough. Losing a Super Bowl is extremely tough for everybody, especially when you lose one when you have a 28-3 lead.
“The way it came down on me personally, I didn’t react to that, the way people would expect, because there were definitely parts in that Super Bowl that I would love to have back and stuff I was very hard on myself, but the whole narrative of if I would’ve just ran it, we would’ve won. I know that wasn’t the case.”
Shanahan said there’s just one play call he’d like to have back from that day and it’s not calling for a third-down pass midway through the fourth quarter that led to a sack-fumble that allowed the Patriots to make it a one-possession game.
The call he’d like back came on the next drive after the Falcons had used two long pass plays to move the ball down to the New England 22 with less than five minutes left.
Three straight runs could have forced the Patriots to burn their timeouts and led to a field goal that would have given Atlanta an 11-point lead that might have been too much for even Tom Brady to overcome.
But after losing a yard on a first-down run, Shanahan called for a pass play that he still regrets.
“They played a different coverage, didn’t get the call I wanted so I didn’t like the call,” he said.
“I was hoping we could just get rid of it, but they had a pretty good rush and got a sack.”
Now backed up to the 35, Shanahan called for another pass to get back into field-goal range on third down only to have a 9-yard gain negated by a holding penalty.
An incompletion on third down led to a punt from the 45, setting up Brady’s game-tying drive.
“I wish I didn’t call that play on second-and-11 that led to that sack,” Shanahan said.
Now the coordinator who called one too many pass plays in his first trip to the Super Bowl is back to the title game as a head coach with one of the most run-dominant play scripts in NFL history.
The 49ers have run the ball on about three-quarters of their plays so far this postseason, the highest rate of runs in the playoffs since Don Shula’s Dolphins threw the ball just 31 times with Hall of Famer Bob Griese at quarterback on the way to the championship following the 1973 season. Jimmy Garoppolo threw the ball just 19 times in the divisional round win over Minnesota and then was limited to eight passes last week in the NFC championship game against Green Bay.
Shanahan instead has kept dialing up successful runs, including a trap play on third-and-8 that led to a 36-yard touchdown run by Raheem Mostert to open the scoring last week against the Packers.
The Niners have run the ball 89 times the past two games, something Shanahan might have been more hesitant to do earlier in his coaching career.
“I didn’t play o-line growing up,” he said. “So, when I first became a coach all I wanted to do was throw it. I played receiver and quarterback my whole life.
“So, that’s all you want to do. And you lean toward that, but the longer you do it, you realize that no matter how cool of passes you can draw up, you’ve got to protect, you’ve got to do things, you can’t put all the pressure on the quarterback. And the thing that does make it a lot easier is being able to run the ball. Running the ball takes pressure off everyone and puts pressure on the defense.”
Castoffs boost Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs saw value in a trio of players that were essentially castoffs from what was one of the least-successful franchises in the NFL over the past 10 years, and their decision to pick them up when just about nobody else was calling is a big reason why they’re playing in the Super Bowl.
The biggest move was picking up Damien Williams, who has gone from journeyman running back to an integral part of one of the league’s best offenses. Backup quarterback Matt Moore filled in admirably when Pat Mahomes was hurt this season, and safety Jordan Lucas played on just about every Chiefs special teams unit.
All three once played for the Dolphins.
Now, all three are headed back to Miami.
“It’s a big stage and a big moment,” Williams said. “I’m a pride-type person. I like to take pride. At the end of the day, this could be your last run, your last play, so you have to go at it as such. I’m going hard every single day.”
Each of those three players know quite well that any game could be their last.
Williams spent his first four seasons with the Dolphins, playing in 58 games and even taking over the starting role for a four-game stretch in 2017. But when they no longer envisioned Williams in their future, he signed a one-year prove-it deal with Kansas City to be the backup to Kareem Hunt, who was just then emerging as a star.
Then last season, Hunt was kicked off the team following an ugly off-the-field incident, and Williams took over down the stretch. He ran for 129 yards and a touchdown while also catching a touchdown pass in a playoff win over Indianapolis, and he added two touchdowns receiving and another rushing in the Chiefs’ overtime AFC title game loss to New England.
That was enough to give Williams the No. 1 job entering this season. But injury trouble that has followed him throughout his career popped up again – it was a shoulder injury two years ago, a rib injury this year. He was sidelined for a long stretch in the middle of the season, and veteran LeSean McCoy and a host of others handled the majority of the reps.
The time off might have done Williams some good, though. He’s been healthy and fresh when Kansas City has needed him most, scoring four touchdowns the past two weeks to give him a franchise-record eight TDs in the postseason.
“He’s playing good football,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “He was banged up and he worked through it. I think he’s done a nice job. Playing physical and running hard. Been impressed with his game right now, catching the ball well too.”
The Chiefs’ offense isn’t necessarily predicated on the run, especially with Mahomes under center. But Williams does just enough to keep defenses honest, and his ability to block and catch in the passing game has proven invaluable.
Asked what he does best, Williams replied: “I’m great at blocking. I can get out, I can catch, I can run between the tackles — I can do a lot of different things to disguise what we’re doing, whether it’s running or passing.”
The 35-year-old Moore was coaching high school football when the Chiefs lost backup quarterback Chad Henne (Michigan) late in the preseason and gave him a call. He had spent seven seasons with the Dolphins and went 8-9 as a starter, but nobody really showed much interest in him last season and he spent an entire year away from the NFL.
His value came in Week 7 when Mahomes dislocated his kneecap in Denver. Moore finished off that win, played well the next week against Green Bay, then led the Chiefs to a win over playoff-bound Minnesota. That victory wound up being even more crucial by Week 17 when Kansas City narrowly earned the No. 2 playoff seed and a first-round bye.
That allowed them to play the AFC championship game at Arrowhead Stadium, beating Tennessee last Sunday.
“It’s been wild,” said Moore, who was inactive against the Titans because of an illness, but who is expected to return to his normal backup duties for the Super Bowl. “In this league, you never know.”
Super Bowl LIV
Kansas City Chiefs vs. San Francisco 49ers
When: 6:30 p.m., Feb. 2
Where: Hard Rock Stadium, Miami, Fla.
Line: Chiefs by 1