The 49ers had three straight road wins as underdogs against teams who had 12 or more victories. So when you hear this team was playing with “house money,” it’s because they were.
But a playoff run where 29 offensive possessions ended in four touchdowns will leave a bitter taste in anyone’s mouth.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan’s decision-making reflected how he felt about his offense. The three-play sequence in the fourth quarter that started with punting the ball on 4th & 2 will grab the headlines, and rightfully so. Still, there were a dozen other plays throughout the game where the 49ers failed to make a play, which ultimately cost the team another Super Bowl appearance.
On the first offensive possession, Jimmy Garoppolo missed George Kittle streaking down the middle of the field on a pass that was bound to go for at least 50 yards. Then, to begin the third quarter, the 49ers had 1st & 10 from the Rams 42-yard line and wound up gaining one more yard before punting the ball. Then, in the final 12 minutes of the game, the Niners, an offense stacked with talent, couldn’t muster a single yard.
There was no costlier drive than the one to begin the fourth quarter when the 49ers were up three points. After picking up three first downs in four plays, it looked as though San Francisco was on their way to take a commanding 10-point lead.
The play of the game that nobody is talking about happened on 2nd & 1 after Elijah Mitchell ran for nine yards. Wide receiver Trent Sherfield couldn’t seal off Eric Weddle, who knifed into the backfield untouched to tackle Mitchell for a loss.
A fresh set of downs there likely allows Shanahan to continue attacking through the air. Instead, it’s 3rd & 2. Trent Williams reported as eligible, and the offense tried to use him as a decoy as they gave Kyle Juszczyk the ball up the middle for a gain of zero.
So, on the two biggest downs of the game, your fourth-string wide receiver misses a block, and you hand the ball to your fullback on third down. Mind you, Samuel had taken a screen pass for 12 yards already on this drive. He would not touch the ball for the rest of the game.
Enter Shanahan and his inability to read the flow of the game. So, it’s 4th & 2 from the Rams 45. After the game, Shanahan said the team was never and had no intention of going for it on fourth down. His plan was to pin the Rams deep and make Stafford drive the field.
In theory, if you’re thinking in yesteryear, it makes sense. You have an above-average defense, and you want to force the Rams to drive the field. The Rams had drives of 64, 97, and 75 up until this point. There was no indication that the 49ers were slowing the Rams down.
When you have a great defense, that should encourage you to be more aggressive on offense as, at worst, they’ll hold the opposing offense to a field goal. Also, by giving them a short field, you save some time, and you might steal an extra possession for your offense.
That’s not the way Shanahan thought. Not only did the 49ers punt the ball, but they also took a delay of game, and Mitch Wishnowsky only punted it 35 yards. That was the football god’s telling Shanahan he made the incorrect decision.
To make matters worse, in between third and fourth down, Mitchell’s potential fumble was being reviewed — giving the 49ers a chance to get into a great play. In this game, Sean McVay dropped the ball with numerous coaching decisions, and challenging Mitchell’s fumble was near the top.
As for Shanahan, you can’t be afraid of failure. He’s an outstanding football coach. If your head coach is lousy, you don’t bounce back from a 4-game losing streak to make the NFC Championship. That doesn’t mean Shanahan’s without flaws. Unfortunately, he has a fatal one.
We shouldn’t be talking about a dropped interception or an unnecessary roughness penalty because Stafford and the Rams shouldn’t have been on the field. By punting, the 49ers cost themselves over 5 percentage points in win probability:
---> SF (17) @ LA (14) <---— 4th down decision bot (@ben_bot_baldwin) January 31, 2022
SF has 4th & 2 at the LAR 45
Recommendation (VERY STRONG): Go for it (+5.4 WP)
Actual play: (Run formation) PENALTY on SF, Delay of Game, 5 yards, enforced at LA 45 - No Play. pic.twitter.com/V6OPu2Iyzv
If you fail, again, the odds of you holding the Rams to a field goal were high. But, when you have the players you do on offense, your only train of thought should have been which play are we going to call.
There were plenty of successful plays that were quick passes. The Rams hadn’t shown any ability to stop you.
Yet, Shanahan wasn’t thinking that way. After the game, he said, “we were up three points and didn’t think it was the right decision” before saying, “we were never thinking about going for that.” Shanahan has been open about his fourth-down decision-making this year. He’s been honest about the times when he second-guessed himself and said he should have gone for it. That was not the case this time, in the biggest situation of the season.
Shanahan punting was an indictment of the way he feels about his quarterback. He didn’t trust him or the offensive line on 4th & 2. A coach who is a guru for scheme and putting defenses in a predicament didn’t think he could pick up two yards. He would instead his defense stop a red-hot offense than allow Garoppolo and the offense to pick up two yards.
We’re sure to read a lot of puff pieces this week about Jimmy G and everything he had to overcome this season, both on and off the field. What we cannot ignore is when push came to shove, the head coach didn’t trust the quarterback to deliver when it mattered the most.