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Silver lining for Shanahan: 4th down decision making

For years the conservative coach has taken his offense off the field and left games up to the special teams unit. Could that be changing?

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Arizona Cardinals Chris Coduto-USA TODAY Sports

Coming off a three-game skid and a bye week has left plenty of time for fans to become harsh critics of Shanahan’s every move; his roster-building, his depth chart handling, and his playcalling. While there are fair complaints to be levied in each area, it’s important to remember that if just a couple of plays go the other way in only one of these contests, the Niners would be in playoff position, and the panic button would be firmly un-pushed.

It may have felt like the wheels have been spinning in the mud for a month now, but there was a positive progression in Shanahan’s style, which has long represented a blind spot for the coach. Going for it on fourth-down or the lack thereof has burned this team on both sides of the ball under his tenure.

Most famously, the Chiefs decided to call back the field goal unit and roll out the offense for another try at crossing the goal line midway through the 1st quarter of the Super Bowl. The clip of Mahomes begging to get back on the field and taking “Rose Bowl Right Parade” into the endzone will be retweeted for infinity.

Notably, after Reid’s change of mind, George Kittle let out a defeated “damn” on the sidelines. The lesson? If your opponent is happy to make you settle for a kick or a punt, don’t settle.

Unfortunately, for the better part of four seasons and change, the 49ers have been content to settle. Between 2018-2020, they’ve finished second to last, second to last, and fifth to last in attempts on fourth down. Tangibly, this lost 3.5 points of win probability per game last year. For someone so forward-thinking and innovative, that’s a lot of horsepower to leave in the barn.

To his credit, even Shanahan has been critical of his own choices as of late, expressing regret over a punt against the Packers from the Green Bay 49 yard line with five minutes left in the second quarter down 10 points.

Thanks to the Twitter account Surrender Index, which quantifies the cowardice of kicking, we know that this ranked in the 93rd percentile of all cowardly punts this year.

Furthermore, the coach seemed to follow through on his new ethos against the Cardinals. When presented with seven situations to either punt or kick, the 49ers sent out Mitch Wishnowsky only twice and kept the offense out there the other five times. That matched their season total up to that point, and even with the early bye week, they still rank in the top ten in attempts this season.

Now, they’ve only converted on half of those tries, but that can work itself out the more they go for it, and, frankly, it’s the risk you run. The best teams get stopped almost 40 percent of the time. However, the most important thing will be weighing the optionS and not being too afraid to make the risky call.

It’s time to stay the course and maintain this aggressive mindset to win football games. This team is going to need every advantage possible as the season continues.