While the San Francisco 49ers spent the week in Sarasota, FL, after dropping a nail-biter in Baltimore, the naysayers were trying to validate all of their criticisms of the team as they lost their second game against a playoff opponent.
One of the most-discussed issues was head coach Kyle Shanahan’s mismanagement of multiple things — from the clock management at the end of the first half to the play call on fourth-and-one on the 49ers’ final offensive drive.
The 49ers’ third-year head coach heard it all and responded with his best win as a head coach, not only for his offensive play-calling but the confidence and calmness that he has instilled into this squad.
San Francisco is playing in the toughest three-game stretch in the Super Bowl era this late in the season, taking on three straight teams that had at least a .800 win percentage (Packers, Ravens, and Saints).
With the 49ers vying with their Pacific Northwest foe for the NFC West crown and a first-round bye, San Francisco had to hold serve on Sunday and defeat the Saints on the road. It was a must-win situation for Kyle Shanahan’s group on the road in the Super Dome, and it did not come easily.
The 49ers’ historically-stingy defense gave up four touchdowns on the Saints’ first four drives, but San Francisco managed to take the lead, 28-27 into halftime.
Shanahan was digging deep into his playbook in the first half, using the “Corner-Post” play to free up wideout Emmanuel Sanders for a 75-yard touchdown. He then followed it up with a double-handoff touchdown pass from Sanders to running back Raheem Mostert.
There were multiple phases in this game, and Shanahan adapted with each challenge. The 49ers’ offense opened it up with quick throws over the middle to wideout Deebo Samuel and Sanders. They followed it up with trick, home-run plays that resulted in quick-strike touchdowns.
Once New Orleans took away the quick passing game, the 49ers established Mostert, Matt Breida, and the rushing attack. When center Weston Richburg went down, the 49ers’ play-caller moved the pocket and let Garoppolo throw on the move. San Francisco started to use jet sweeps and tosses to start running the to the edges of the Saints’ defense and away from backup center Ben Garland.
The 49ers’ offense finished with 48 points, 516 yards of total offense, 8.2 yards per play and total dominance over a Saints’ defense that came in with a top-10 resume.
Shanahan displayed his offensive genius, dialing up a variety of plays, adapting to what the defense was giving him, and his offensive injuries. Despite all of that, I don’t think even that’s why this was Shanahan’s best win on his resume.
His attitude and calm-and-collected-ness are now reflected in the team’s weekly performance, as any situation does not phase them, and they have the expectation of winning. Once quarterback Drew Brees went down and led the Saints for a game-leading touchdown drive, there was no nervousness on the 49ers’ sideline, even though they only had 53 seconds and needed a field goal for the win in the loud Super Dome.
They faced a 4th-and-2 on the final drive, but quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, tight end George Kittle and the 49ers’ offensive line calmly executed on their respective roles and were able to march down the field for a game-winning field goal at the buzzer.
The Athletic’s Tim Kawakami caught up with Shanahan after the game and here’s what the 49ers’ head coach had to say about the team embodying his cool demeanor in the game’s most intense moments:
“I tell myself all the time, you want to make sure that your nerves don’t get to you, and if they are getting to you, you better check yourself and be able to recognize when nerves are getting to you, so you don’t do something based off of nerves. That’s something I talked to the team a lot last night and throughout the week because, as it starts to get to the end, the games do get a little bit tighter. If people say they don’t feel that, they’re usually not telling the truth.”
From the front office all the way down the players on the field, there’s a sense of confidence that the 49ers are going to do the unthinkable and go on a magical run starting with this game. The team has the talent, the coaching has been extraordinary, and the players are consistently executing at a high level.
Now, they have a head coach that oozes confidence and composure in the game’s most critical junctures, which makes a world of difference. With the 49ers headed to the playoffs and playing in important games in December and January, this extra advantage could possibly be the difference when facing elite teams.
Shanahan should be proud of his team and even more proud of his performance — not as a play-caller — but as the head football coach of the 49ers.