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Gold Standard: Kyle Shanahan must stop living in his fears

Field goals are failures

After five years as the 49ers’ head coach, Kyle Shanahan is starting to feel the heat. From roster decisions to play-calling, Shanahan is taking criticism like never before. One area where he has largely escaped many critiques, however, is aggressiveness on fourth down. Levin Black and I discussed that subject on today’s Gold Standard podcast.

If there’s one thing we’ve seen in the Kyle Shanahan era, he coaches in his fears. Whether it’s aggression before the half or going for it on fourth down, Kyle seems to approach these decisions from the perspective of, “What if we fail?”

The Broncos game brought us two perfect examples of this. First, with Denver stopped on third down from the 49ers’ 39-yard line, Shanahan chose to decline a penalty that would have pushed them out of field goal range and created a 3rd and 19 situation. Why?

“We were a little nervous of Russell Wilson making a big play on third-and-long, maybe throwing it up, getting a PI or getting a holding, getting an automatic first-down or something like that, so we went with the 55-yarder.”

In the fourth quarter, with his team clinging to a 7-5 lead, Shanahan opted for the 51-yard field goal rather than attempting to covert on 4th and 2. Kyle said he never even considered going for it.

“It was a pretty quick, easy decision. I thought we were short right away and sent the field goal team out there.”

In both cases, Shanahan opted to make decisions that helped keep the Broncos in the game simply because he was more concerned with avoiding failure than achieving success.

“It’s weird because it’s like the one spot where he’s not arrogant,” Levin said on the show, “He’s kind of seen as a new-age coach because he was so young when he got hired, but when you really think about it a little deeper than the surface, he’s an old-school coach. He’s an old-school coach’s son. He came up through that, he runs a system that’s been around since the 90s. It’s an old offense. He has a lot of things where he is very old-school in his approach.

Because he dresses younger and is into pop culture, people think he’s more of an innovator and would be someone that goes for it on fourth down because they look at the analytics of it. I don’t think he’s that big into analytics. I really don’t. I think he’s very much an old-school coach, but when you look at him, you don’t see that. When you look at all of his decisions, that is what he is, and we need to think of him in that way.”

If you want to know where the 49ers stack up with other teams in terms of going for it on fourth down this year, take a look.

For a more historical perspective, I looked up some numbers. In Shanahan’s first year in 2017, the 49ers attempted the 10th most fourth down conversations in the league. Since then, they’ve been 31st in 2018, 31st in 2019, 28th in 2020, and 26th in 2021. Admittedly, that alone doesn’t necessarily indicate a problem. If you’re regularly winning games by multiple scores, giving away a possession here or there isn’t a big deal. As any 49ers fan knows, however, that isn’t the case with San Francisco.

The closer the score is, the more important these game management decisions become. With an offense that often struggles to score points (especially early in games) and a fantastic defense, the 49ers should be more aggressive on fourth down, not less.

Go back to Sunday night. If they had scored a touchdown instead of kicking a field goal against the Broncos, the 49ers would have had an eight-point lead without the extra point. A Robbie Gould extra point gives them a two-score lead in the fourth quarter of a game their defense was dominating.

If Kyle Shanahan’s worst fears came true and the Broncos stopped the 49ers, he’d still have a two-point advantage with Denver needing to drive down the field to even have a chance at a field goal to take the lead. Even in that case, the 49ers could still have taken the lead with a touchdown and an extra point, and they would have had plenty of time to get it.

Too often, Kyle Shanahan takes the conservative approach, and we’re left white-knuckling the rest of the game, hoping the defense doesn’t give up any points. Continually asking that side of the ball to be perfect is not a winning strategy. In 2022, no team should lose a game when they force ten punts, cause eight three-and-outs and only allow nine points. Unless Kyle Shanahan changes drastically in the next 14 games, however, his decisions are going to continue to make it harder for his team to win.

Other topics in today’s show

Kyle Shanahan is finally feeling the heat a little bit. How much of that is deserved? (2:40)

Defenses aren’t playing honest against the 49ers (7:52)

Jimmy Garoppolo’s biggest issue this season (12:21)

One fix Jimmy could make right away that would have a massive impact (15:21)

Is Mike McDaniel’s absence really hurting as much as people say? (16:24)

The 49ers have to save their season against the Rams- again (23:51)

What is the Niners’ path to victory this week? (26:48)

What will Kyle Shanahan to do counter the Rams’ pass rush? (29:33)

Does Mooney Ward shadow Cooper Kupp? (35:09)

Who can provide a spark on offense? (36:20)

Is 20 points the magic number for the 49ers? (39:38)