It’s the simplest play in football: victory formation. You’ve clinched the game and you just need to kneel down a few times, with all of your teammates surrounding you to prevent a Greg Schiano dick-move by the defense.
But somehow, at the end of their victory against Denver, the Niners did screw it up. Even though they could have kneeled out the clock, they didn’t, allowing the Broncos to run one final play at the end of the game from their own 41-yard line.
That doesn’t sound like a huge deal, except that the 49ers lead was exactly six points. A touchdown would have given Denver the win, and it was starting to look like a very Elegant Tank indeed.
(Side note: I’m pretty sure I invented that phrase last year, and I kind of regret it now because I don’t really think the Niners are tanking. But it took on a life of its own, and tanks with top hats look cool so whatever.)
Normally, you’d think the odds of one play scoring a TD are infinitesimal, but this was the same day that Miami beat New England on a very similar play. You knew it, and Kyle Shanahan knew it, as he confirmed to a reporter. “Yep, it was a very bad feeling that ended [when their one play failed] but it was a very bad feeling.”
So what happened? There were three mistakes, and the first happened sooner that you might think.
What should have been the clinching play came on 3rd and 3 at the Denver 39, with 2:39 left in the game. Nick Mullens threw a beautiful dart to Trent Taylor, his second read according to Shanahan, which picked up 6 yards and a first down at the 33. The conversion took the play clock down to the 2 minute warning.
After the two minute warning, Mullens kneels, taking one second, and everyone starts hugging and slapping butts and stuff. Shanahan takes off his headset, which he later tells reporters was a huge error.
“...it’s a good learning lesson... that your coach should never take his headset off. So, I’m going to try not to, unless we’re up a lot.”
That was bad because when the other two mistakes happened, the coach wasn’t able to tell his QB how to fix it the normal way, through his headset. So it’s second and 11, and Mullens makes the second (and biggest) mistake. He calls for the snap at 1:25, when there are eight seconds left on the clock.
Suddenly the math doesn’t work any more. You can run 40 seconds off the clock each play, but they didn’t have 8 eight extra seconds to throw away.
Here’s the math. The series started at 2:00 (i.e. 120 seconds). Assume that each play takes one second to kneel, and you run off the full 40 seconds. So 41 seconds later (the maximum possible), second down starts at 1:19 (i.e. 79 seconds left). 3rd down starts at 38 seconds, so your 40 second play clock barely runs out the game. But there’s no time to spare. Or literally, only two seconds to spare.
The early snap already made this unworkable. The clock was at 1:24 (84 seconds) at this point, and a one-second 3rd down was already not enough to run out the clock. Mullens focused on this down when speaking to reporters.
“I snapped it too early earlier in the drive which kind of messed up the timing and things like that. So, I’ve just got to control the situation better and not be stupid.”
On third down, he at least ran the clock all the way down to 1 second, and snapped at 0:44. It was another quick kneel, though a slow (hometown?) finger on the 40 second clock clawed back a couple more seconds. Even so, there was a clear two second gap, with the play clock starting at 0:42, which clearly was not going to work.
People on the coaching staff noticed, and alerted Shanahan but he didn’t have his headset on, so he literally hollered at his QB. This is where the concept of the “slow knee” comes in.
The plays on first and second down only took one second each, because Mullens kneeled immediately, but he didn’t have to. He could have held onto the ball for a bit, maybe taking a step or two back for safety, or even danced the Snoopy dance for a while, to burn off the extra time. He did not.
I’ll let the head coach pick up the story here.
“... the headsets are off and we’re all hugging and stuff and then someone tells me so I yell to Nick, ‘Hey, you need a slow knee.’ That’s something we go through when you’ve got to step back and kill a second before you take a knee. I’m yelling it because I’m a little panicked and Nick, very calm, just hushes me and tells me to chill out. So, I’m like, ‘Alright, he’s got it.’ Then he was relaxed and he snapped it and did exactly what he was supposed to do, did a slow knee, took almost two seconds before he did it.”
Notice the word “almost”? Mullens slow knee wasn’t quite slow enough, because of the third mistake.
“The problem was when we were telling him that, he’s not thinking much and you tell him and he looked right up at the scoreboard, you can see it on tape, the scoreboard says third-and-12. But it’s fourth-and-12. So, he’s like, ‘Alright, I don’t know why Kyle is freaking out, it’s a slow knee, I’ll do a slow knee.’
But, he snapped it with five seconds on the play clock thinking he was going to be able to do it again on fourth down. But, that was fourth down. So, he lost track of the downs just like [New England Patriots QB] Tom Brady this week lost track of whether they had a timeout left or not. “
Tom Brady was not the comparison anyone wanted to hear, after New England’s crazy loss, but it worked out as the defense held. Shanahan said “I don’t think it’s a big deal because we won now. It would have been a huge deal.”
In the end, San Francisco not only won, but maintained the worst record in the NFL. And that’s the most elegant tank of all — when you win the game, and keep the lead for the #1 draft pick anyway.