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The Game Manager, Week 11: A very special episode

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Bye weeks are for lovers... of deep dives on coaching evaluation. Plus: Musical QBs in Tampa Bay

NFL: Oakland Raiders at San Francisco 49ers
“I’m making a Y with my body as if to say ‘Why?!’”
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Every once in a while, 80’s and 90’s sitcoms would air a “very special episode,” which would feature less comedy than usual in exchange for tackling a serious subject.

In that grand tradition, which brought us Tom Hanks as Alex P. Keaton’s drunk uncle, and Punky Brewster being offered cocaine, I’m stepping away from my trademark forced attempts at “humor” in order to explore a subject in depth. Like the best of those very special episodes I want to tackle an important and weighty issue: How good a game manager is Kyle Shanahan?

Just so we’re clear, there are many facets to evaluating a coach — too many to address fully in a single column (even a long-winded one like mine) — and game management is only one, so this is not a referendum on Shanahan’s abilities overall. But I think most of his attributes are fairly obvious and easy to assess.

Shanahan’s reputation as one of the most inventive offensive minds in the game has not been overblown. His ability to run an effective offense despite the lack of talent at his disposal has been nothing short of inspiring. This season, he’s gotten production out of three quarterbacks of descending levels of talent and pedigree.

Shanahan’s ability to develop and prepare quarterbacks is no more impressive than his development of lightly-regarded prospects at other skill positions (see: George Kittle and Matt Breida). Beyond that, he’s routinely schemed players open in the passing game, and masterminded a consistently productive running game despite a roster light on playmakers.

More impressive to me than even his offensive bonafides has been Shanahan’s ability to get his team to compete despite mounting losses. I was impressed in 2017 that an undermanned team with a hopeless situation at QB managed to stay competitive, but there were no expectations to manage. This year, playoff hopes were tangible — realistic or not — so the Garoppolo injury was gutting. And yet the next week the Niners competed right to the end against a good team. If you don’t think that’s notable, go watch some tape of the Chip Kelly era. On second thought, don’t — you’re better than that.

Sure, there are questions. Will he keep Robert Saleh? If not, who will he hire? But nothing which calls his abilities into serious question. The biggest question at this point might be his skills at player evaluation in the draft and free agency, but I’d argue that’s separate from evaluating him as a coach.

The adventures of Kyle Shanahan: Game manager

Confession: I’m obsessed with game and clock management. I watch every football game with a detective’s eye, looking to spot any hint of a questionable decision (think Andy Reid) or genius maneuver (think Bill Belichick).

I’ve found most coaches are great at X’s and O’s, but struggle with strategy. Only a few understand game theory as well as game film.

When I originally envisioned this column, I planned to delve into Shanahan’s game management decisions each week. Then the season started and there wasn’t much that was significant to the game’s outcome. I didn’t want to out myself by going full strategy nerd and boring everybody by analyzing decisions which played no part in the final score. So, while I jotted down thoughts on Shanahan’s various moves, I inevitably decided not to include them. Instead, I bided my time, waiting for just the right moment to spring them on the unsuspecting populace.

Legendary director Sidney Lumet said screenwriting is like polishing diamonds on a deserted island in case you get rescued. That’s how I’ve been, waiting for my chance to share my geeky treasure with the world. That moment, dear reader, is finally upon us.

Sweat the small stuff

The small moves which only slightly increase the odds of victory are the most often ignored or botched.

Week 1: While running out the clock, Minnesota’s second down play ended with 2:05 left. With the clock running, and the 49ers holding one timeout, most coaches would’ve called it then, forcing Minnesota to run another play before the two-minute warning. Shanahan didn’t, and I loved it.

Yes, you can save five seconds and know the clock will stop after the next play. If the 49ers stop Minnesota, the Vikings will punt with two minutes left, rather than at about 1:55. But there’s a risk which far outweighs that reward of five seconds.

Facing third down with 2:05 left relieves pressure on the opposing coach to keep the clock moving. The clock stops after the play anyway, so why not pass for the first down? If you make it, the game’s over. If it’s incomplete, you’ve lost nothing. By letting the clock tick down to two minutes, Shanahan forced Zimmer into a tough choice: a) run into a defense expecting it, just to force the 49ers to use their last timeout, or b) attempt to pass to ice the game, knowing an incompletion saves the 49ers final timeout.

To Zimmer’s credit, he went for the win. Cousins’ pass fell incomplete, saving the 49ers last timeout for the low, low price of five seconds. Sure, five seconds means an extra play, but a timeout on offense saves at least twice that — teams take 10+ seconds to get off a play with the clock running (which is why there’s a 10-second runoff on penalties under two minutes).

While most coaches call their timeout before the two-minute warning in these spots, you know who doesn’t? Bill Belichick.

Week 2: With the ball and a 30-27 lead with 1:41 left, the 49ers faced a 3rd and 8. The Lions were out of timeouts, so Shanahan could, as many coaches do, run the ball, sacrificing any real shot at a game-clinching first down to bleed 40 seconds off the clock. Shanahan instead chose to let Garoppolo take a shot at clinching the win. As it happened, Garoppolo couldn’t find anyone, and took a sack (which Shanahan encouraged in that scenario) allowing the clock to run anyway.

This was not only uncommonly aggressive, at least among the famously conservative fraternity of pro football coaches, it was undoubtedly the right call. Detroit had shredded the 49ers on their previous two drives, overcoming a 3rd and 17 and a 3rd and goal from the 15. If the 49ers defense couldn’t stop the Lions on 3rd and forever, it wasn’t likely they’d stop them on four downs. And advising Garoppolo to take a sack if the throw wasn’t there makes the call even better.

Week 8: Another small move which didn’t ultimately affect the outcome was Shanahan’s decision to use his timeouts as Arizona was closing in on a game-winning TD with under a minute left. Yes, the Niners still led 15-10, but Shanahan knew he had to hedge his bets by leaving Beathard and Co. time for a game-tying (if the Cards got a TD and two-point conversion) or game-winning (if the two-point try failed) field goal. And it might’ve worked too, if it weren’t for that meddling wild snap.

Mistakes of aggression

Mistakes are bad. But aggressiveness is good.

Week 4: Lost in Beathard’s surprisingly effective first start were two bad Shanahan replay challenges. In each case, replays showed the right call was made, so neither should’ve been challenged no matter how big the calls were. These lost challenges cost the 49ers in two ways — one didn’t hurt, one did.

The first pitfall was Shanahan expending his challenges with 13+ minutes left. That left the 49ers powerless to reverse any bad call. And they got one, as D.J. Reed’s fumbled punt return was incorrectly ruled a turnover. Luckily, turnovers are automatically reviewed, and it was reversed.

The other pitfall was the lost timeouts, which may have kept the Niners from getting the ball back one last time. Once the Chargers reached 1st and goal at the two-minute warning, they simply took three knees. But with those timeouts, the 49ers could’ve stopped three runs, forced a FG, and gotten the ball back with a minute left down 32-27. Had the Chargers tried to throw for a game-clinching TD just once and failed to complete the pass, the Niners might’ve had as much as 1:40 left.

The good news: Shanahan has been generally excellent at challenges. He’s seven for 10 in his career, nearly double the league-wide success rate (39 percent).

Week 6: I’ve already stated my case that Shanahan should’ve called a running play on the 49ers last drive at Green Bay. The bottom line: It was a mistake, but I admire his aggressiveness.

Playing not to lose

Playing safe isn’t safe at all.

Week 3: Shanahan’s most unquestionably bad move comes with a huge caveat. His decision to kick a FG down 14 with 5:17 left at Kansas City was inexplicable when taken out of context. The three points were nearly meaningless, as the 49ers needed a TD for any chance to win. Even facing 4th and goal from the 17, the logical play was to go. But he and the team were rattled in the moments after Jimmy G’s injury, and were relying on a rusty Beathard. Add that they had just been robbed of a crucial TD pass on Beathard’s first pass by a phantom offensive pass interference call, and the decision is more understandable.

Week 8: The one place where I feel Shanahan has work to do is his conservative play-calling when protecting a lead. Maybe he has too much faith in his defense, or not enough in his backup QBs, or maybe he’s still shell-shocked from the Super Bowl. In any case, he tends not go for the jugular. The best example: the 49ers led 12-3 at the end of the 3rd quarter with a 1st and goal at the Cardinals four-yard line and a chance to all but ice the game.

Shanahan played it safe, calling three runs. Each was stuffed. Even worse, two of the runs were by the slow-footed Beathard. Shanahan later explained the last was a read option which Beathard would’ve handed off if he hadn’t bobbled the snap, but that doesn’t change that a) Beathard carrying the ball was still an option, and b) three runs from inside the five is too conservative.

The conservatism of the last two calls seem to be an outlier to the intelligent aggression Shanahan has shown most of the time. At this point, I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen. On the Belichick-Reid scale, I’d put him much closer to the former than the latter.

Baywatch

The Bucs are an odd bunch. They dealt the Saints, perhaps the NFL’s best team, their only loss, hanging 48 on them — with their journeyman backup QB, who’s been a fantasy god.

Despite Ryan Fitzpatrick becoming the first QB to compile 400+ passing yards in each of the first three weeks, leading the Buccaneers to 27+ points in each game, he was benched in Week 4 after he struggled against the stout Bears defense for a half. In came starter Jameis Winston, fresh off suspension, who threw a pick in his first series, and two in the half.

The next week, Winston threw for 395 yards and four touchdowns (and two more picks) in a 34-29 loss to Atlanta, then put up 365 yards and 26 points (with another couple of INT’s) the week after. But when Winston struggled mightily the following week in Cincinnati (four more INT’s), he was benched with the Bucs down 34-16. Fitzpatrick led a furious comeback (going 11/15 for 194 yards and two TD’s in the 4th quarter) to tie the score before the Bengals won 37-34.

Fitzpatrick continued his run the next week, tossing four touchdowns and leading the Bucs to 28 points at Carolina. But after putting up only three points at Washington despite compiling 501 yards, and then struggling vs. the Giants this week (three picks, seven points), it was Winston’s turn to replace Fitzpatrick and lead a furious second half road comeback (12/16, two TD’s, 28 points) only to fall three points short.

Winston’s performance earned him the start vs. the 49ers, ending hopes of a Mullens Magic vs. FitzMagic matchup (a regular Magic: The Gathering) — at least until halftime. Winston doesn’t have the flashy nickname, or the parody twitter account (which is actually a parody of a parody).

He doesn’t resemble an MMA fighter who’s also been losing a lot recently, nor is he the fashion forward icon Fitzpatrick is.

But he and Fitzpatrick do share one thing in common: a habit of alternating between great and terrible. They’re either lighting you up or gift-wrapping turnovers. Sometimes simultaneously!

No matter who the Bucs play, the 49ers will face a QB prone to giveaways. Of course, the 49ers struggle to manufacture takeaways. And despite the QB shuffling, Tampa has been one of the better offenses in the league, scoring 26+ points in eight of 10 games — the only outliers against two of the better defenses, Chicago and Washington. The 49ers, you may have noticed, tend to give up points — 24+ in eight of 10 games. So this sets up as the extremely moveable object against the very resistible force.

Poll

What grade would you give Kyle Shanahan so far as a head coach?

This poll is closed

  • 17%
    A (for "Awesome!")
    (46 votes)
  • 76%
    B (for "Better than you’d expect for a guy with an 8-18 record")
    (197 votes)
  • 4%
    C (for "Completely average")
    (12 votes)
  • 0%
    D (for "Don’t like him much")
    (2 votes)
  • 0%
    F (for "FML")
    (1 vote)
258 votes total Vote Now