The 49ers didn’t lose against the Titans last Thursday because Kyle Shanahan wasn’t aggressive toward the end of the first half. A part of the reason the Niners lost was what their head coach had to say after and how that impacted his play-calling.
Shanahan has squeezed every second out of the clock during end-of-the-half situations all season. At times, he’s been obnoxious about it, ensuring his team has the last possession of the quarter.
The 49ers were in a similar situation Thursday night. With 1:20 remaining, the 49ers were up 10-0 with the ball at its 10-yard line, after picking up 12 yards on the first play after a Deebo Samuel reception that went for seven yards and a defensive delay of game.
Jimmy Garoppolo found JaMycal Hasty for eight yards, but the 49ers weren’t in a hurry to do much of anything after that. The clock went from 1:00 to 22 seconds before Garoppolo snuck for a first down on 3rd & 2. That would be the last play the 49ers rain during the half.
In real-time, the only part about that sequence was exposing your quarterback to an unnecessary hit on a quarterback sneak, knowing you had zero intention of scoring.
But why not try to extend your double-digit lead against a playoff team, especially when they get the ball to start the third quarter? Shanahan’s explanation was the biggest indictment on his quarterback yet: “There was 19 seconds. I didn’t want it to lead to a turnover. Give them a chance to get anything.”
The 49ers had arguably their best opening drive of the season after marching 75 yards for a touchdown. They had no issue moving the ball again on their second drive before Garoppolo forced a pass to George Kittle that ended in an interception in the end zone. Their third drive ended in a field goal but also featured an errant pass to Kyle Juszczyk that would’ve been a walk-in touchdown. Instead, the Niners went three-and-out on their third drive.
We are in Week 16, and the 49ers have a veteran quarterback. So when the head coach says he doesn’t want to call plays at the end of the half with all three timeouts because he fears his quarterback will turn it over, there’s a problem.
It’s not fair or accurate to say Garoppolo has been the sole reason the 49ers have underachieved all season. San Francisco, like everyone else, has dealt with significant injuries and suffered inconsistent play in turn.
Unfortunately, Garoppolo’s “turnover-worthy” throws have been a staple of his game. The Titans made him pay. The Bengals didn’t. In football, these throws even out over the course of the season.
What do you do if you’re Shanahan? If he turned to rookie quarterback Trey Lance, he would shock the world as the 49ers are still in the thick of the NFC playoff race. Would that be an overreaction? With two weeks remaining, as someone who would have started Lance in Week 1, I say yes.
What Shanahan can’t do is go in a shell, though. There are too many weapons on this offense for the Niners to finish any game scoring in the teens. So if you’re unhappy with the quarterback, switch things up offensively. Use more tempo and no-huddle. Move Jimmy around in the pocket on bootlegs.
Shanahan has a few options that don’t require him to upend his offense. So the short answer would be for the quarterback to take care of the football.