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The Game Manager, Week 14: Yes! I mean, no! Wait... Yes!

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The 49ers played solid defense (seriously), didn’t blow a late lead (though not for lack of trying), and won (without giving up draft position). Also, up is down, hot is cold, and day is night. Plus: The worst clock management gaffe of Kyle Shanahan’s career (hopefully).

NFL: Denver Broncos at San Francisco 49ers
Wait, we have to run the WHOLE clock out? Like ALL of it?
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Bosa, shmosa. The 49ers wanted to win, draft position be damned. And it’s hard to blame them when half of you admitted in last week’s poll that you can’t help but root for the 49ers, despite knowing it might not be in their best interests long term. Another third at least wanted to see players do well and the team to compete.

Fandom (pronounced “Fan = dumb”) is a hard thing to suppress. We all have years — some, decades — of rooting for the red and gold. It’s hard to just suddenly do a 180 and hope for a loss. You can try, and most of us do to some extent — 83 percent of us according to the poll — but our neural pathways are stubborn, and it’s not easy to change those instincts.

Plus, there were things I think we’ve all longed to see which finally happened on Sunday. Primarily, defense. It was by far the best effort of the season from Robert Saleh’s much maligned unit. They rushed the passer effectively, they covered well, they tackled quickly, they hit hard. In short, they looked nothing like the 49ers defense we’ve come to know and be annoyed by this season. When the 49ers entered halftime shutting out the Broncos 20-0, I wasn’t even sure they were the same players I’d watched all year. But then I noticed that they still failed to force any turnovers, and I realized, yeah, those are the same guys.

Sure, they were facing an undermanned Broncos offense, who lost their best receiver, Emmanuel Sanders, before the game. But Denver still had rookie Phillip Lindsay, the league’s leader in yards per rush, and the 49ers completely shut him down (30 yards on 14 carries after compiling 267 on 33 carries the previous two weeks). They did the same to fellow rookie Courtland Sutton, the league leader in yards per reception, holding him to just 14 yards on two catches.

We also got a healthy heaping of the bright spots we’ve come to know and love, as George Kittle continued to dominate, Nick Mullens continued to amaze, and Dante Pettis continued to impress (and score, and celebrate) — though not without rough patches (more on that later).

After a record-breaking first half, the Niner offense bogged down in the second half as they have in several close losses. The 49er defense also predictably weakened after halftime, giving up a 3rd quarter touchdown (albeit one which required two 4th down conversions). But heading into the 4th quarter, they still led 20-7. Most teams would consider that a healthy cushion. 49ers fans, on the other hand, knew the conditions were ripe for another 49er choke job down the stretch. We were so ready for it, when Trent Taylor let a Mullens pass slip through his arms and into the grasp of Denver’s Darian Stewart, several raced to Twitter to call the impending collapse.

Look at the timestamp on those tweets. They were posted the very same minute — a clear indication of the Pavlovian response we’ve all been conditioned to exhibit. Oh, so this is how the 49ers blow it.

But after stopping Denver on a 4th down for the second time in less than five minutes, the 49ers had a great chance to salt the game away. If you’ve watched the Niners this year, you knew they wouldn’t do that with any sort of ease. The Broncos converted three 4th downs in a span of 102 seconds, the last a touchdown to bring Denver within six points. At that point, Vegas couldn’t put the odds the Niners would blow the game and lose 21-20 high enough for me not to bet on it.

As we all know now, the Niners didn’t choke the game away. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t display choke-like behavior. Along with some very weird clock shenanigans by Shanahan (Shanahanigans?), which I’ll get into shortly, the 49ers had several other unforced errors which left the door open for the Broncos. On 3rd downs alone, they had another crucial drop (by Dante Pettis), a false start (Laken Tomlinson), and a ball-carrier run out of bounds on his own with 3:32 remaining (Pettis again).

But here’s the thing: They won. Which is rare enough these days, especially in close games. In fact, it was kind of a first.

But as we’ve established, that’s not happy news for everybody. Some folks only care about draft position. Sunday held good news for them too.

Tanksgiving II: No Tanks!

While the 49ers were threatening to give up their position atop the draft board, just across the Bay the Raiders were threatening to give that No. 1 spot right back to them. The Raiders took early leads of 7-0 and 10-7 on Pittsburgh. After the Steelers went up 14-10 lead, Oakland knocked out Ben Roethlisberger, and in came Joshua Dobbs for the second half.

As the Steelers held their lead deep into the 4th quarter, the 49ers were letting the Broncos eat into theirs. Suddenly, it looked like the 49ers would have to pull off another of their patented 4th quarter collapses to keep pace in the tank wars. But with five minutes left, the Raiders took the lead back 14-10, and they were staring a win right in the face. Maybe the 49ers didn’t need to lose.

Back in came Roethlisberger, who was apparently just waiting for a dramatic time to re-enter. He led Pittsburgh back, throwing a go-ahead TD with just 2:55 left. But Oakland wasn’t done, quickly marching to the Steelers goal line. Meanwhile, the Niners held on to win. They dodged a few bullets — some of them from their own gun — but the 49ers would not tank on this day.

The Raiders eventually faced a 4th and goal with 25 seconds to play. With one play to either win the game or secure the No. 1 pick, Derek Carr found former 49er Derek Carrier for the game-winning score.

Or was it? On a day that featured the most amazing hook-and-lateral play I’ve ever seen to turn a Patriots win into a Dolphins win on the final play of the game (more on that later), the Steelers dialed up one of their own.

In one play, Pittsburgh moved from their 30 to the Raiders 22, and from sure defeat to probable overtime and a possible win (or tie) which would leapfrog the Raiders over the 49ers on the draft board. But no!

Call it a “wet fart” of an ending if you like, but the Raiders would not tank on this day either.

Of course, the Cardinals were not so helpful, going down to the Lions. That leaves a three-way tie at “the top,” which is sure to thrill fans down the stretch. And make us watch way more Giants, Buccaneers, Falcons, and Washington games than any sane person would.

(Bizarro) Stat of the Week

Denver converted five of seven 4th down attempts, but was just 2-15 converting 3rd downs.

Shanamanagement

A few weeks ago, I did a deep drive on Kyle Shanahan’s game and clock management performance throughout the year to date. Who can forget, am I right? Little did I know at the time, he still had his most memorable moment to come. And not memorable in a good way.

I mentioned at the time that I had held off on discussing many of Shanahan’s moves because they didn’t end up effecting the final score. Well, that was also the case on Sunday, but this isn’t a detail I can overlook or omit. It’s a real doozy. One for the ages.

I think most fans know that if a team reaches the two minute warning with the ball, the lead, and a first down, and their opponent has no timeouts, the game is effectively over. At the risk of stating the obvious, the play clock is 40 seconds, and three times 40 seconds is two minutes. That means that even if each kneel down takes just one second — and they all do — the team has to make sure they wait until the play clock is down to one second before snapping the ball to ensure all the time is exhausted. If you want to make doubly sure, quarterbacks are instructed to wait a beat before kneeling to allow an extra second of two to pass. It’s not rocket science.

Only once in the history of the game — at least that I’m aware of — has a team in this position managed to lose in this situation. It was 40 years ago, and i’s so legendary, it was dubbed “The Miracle at the Meadowlands.” In case, you don’t know or can’t remember the details:

As laid out in the above video, that play became so legendary, it actually changed how teams run out the clock. Kneel downs weren’t entirely prevalent before, but became de rigeur ever since. I have never seen a team screw up the math on this... Until Sunday, when the 49ers somehow screwed this up at the end of the Broncos game. I’m here to tell you how.

It actually took multiple mistakes by both Shanahan and Mullens. The first was a huge one. After his initial kneel down, Mullens not only didn’t wait for the play clock to get to one second, he snapped it at nine seconds. Way, way too soon. This immediately put the 49ers at risk of having to run a 4th down play — because three kneel downs always exhaust the needed three seconds, but rarely never take as many as 12 seconds. And once you have to run a 4th down play, weird things can happen. Especially since the clock stops automatically after the play on the change of possession.

At this point, Shanahan failed to notice this gaffe. It appeared he was too busy hugging people to celebrate the win. Had he noticed, he could’ve easily instructed Mullens to let the clock run down to one second and then call the 49ers last timeout. This would’ve given him ample time to remind Mullens of the importance of waiting until the one second to snap the ball. There’s no need to fear a delay of game, as all that costs you is five meaningless yards. In fact, at that point, it might have made more sense to get two delay of games before 3rd and 4th down, just to eat those two seconds.

Instead, Mullens simply let the clock run down to one second, then quickly took another knee. By not delaying at all, the play clock was still one second ahead of the game clock, meaning the 49ers needed to take the dreaded 4th down snap. Again, Shanahan could’ve called timeout here to explain the situation to Mullens. Or again, he could’ve simply taken a delay of game to leave Mullens just one second left to exhaust with another kneel down. Instead, as Shanahan explained afterward, he instructed Mullens to snap the ball with one second on the play clock and wait a beat or two before taking a knee.

That was more risk than was needed, but still should’ve worked. It didn’t, because again Mullens took the snap way too early — this time at six seconds. So even after waiting that extra beat, that left Denver four seconds to try and pull of a miracle. On a day when that proved possible.

The Broncos were eight yards closer to the end zone than Miami. Close enough, some quarterbacks may have been able to throw a hail mary. Luckily, the Broncos felt Case Keenum couldn’t get the ball to the end zone and went with the much more difficult lateral play (no matter how it looked on Sunday). Since the play failed and the 49ers won, we can laugh about it now, but hopefully it’s a learning experience for Shanahan, who doesn’t have the best track record at running out clocks.

Next up: Seattle

I’m not asking for a win, I just want the 49ers to celebrate a TD by re-enacting Russell Wilson’s goal line pick in the Super Bowl, with Richard Sherman playing Malcolm Butler. Is that so much to ask?

Poll

What are you most looking for out of the remainder of the 49ers season?

This poll is closed

  • 46%
    49ers land the No. 1 draft pick (Draft Nick Bosa)
    (150 votes)
  • 28%
    Kittle breaks the single-season record for receiving yards by a TE (225 away)
    (92 votes)
  • 14%
    More Mullens Magic (establishes himself as clear #2)
    (46 votes)
  • 8%
    DeForest Buckner gets double-digit sack total (1 away)
    (27 votes)
  • 2%
    Other (answer in comments)
    (8 votes)
323 votes total Vote Now