Head coach Kyle Shanahan let 26 seconds run off the clock on third-and-short, and for the first time, 49ers fans universally agreed on something.
Most responses included a variation of a four-letter word. We’ve seen San Francisco have ample success no matter who is under center in end-of-half situations this season. So why did Shanahan sit on the ball when Dallas received the opening kickoff?
Shanahan explained his thought process during the postgame:
“No, that’s a tough thing for me to do. I know it’s tough for our fans to watch, but when it’s third-and-one, and I think there was like 50 seconds, they have two timeouts. I would hate to not get that first down to show you guys why I did it. That’s kind of something we believe in. We don’t want to give the ball back to them.
We liked where the score was at. We still think we have time to score, but when you get to a third-and-one, and we had one time out, and they had two, we weren’t about to not get that third down. Punt it to them, where if we threw it, they’d still have two timeouts and 45 seconds, and now they’re ending with points in the half if they score, similar to how Seattle did at the end of the half, but the difference is they were also starting with the ball in the third quarter.
Now once you get the first down, yeah, then I wished that we went faster, but you don’t know if you’re going to get that first down or not, so you want to play it the smart way, and I thought we did do that. I thought we made some big plays. I wanted [WR] Jauan [Jennings], the protection to wait for Jauan, but to still get a field goal out of it was huge though.”
Brock Purdy hadn’t given Shanahan the same type of confidence with his play as had been the case during the previous month. The offensive line had allowed enough pressure where there was the risk of stopping the clock. Shanahan explaining his rationale won’t appease everyone, but you can see where he’s coming from.
Shanahan is “stuck in his ways” when giving the ball back to the other team toward the end of the half. But there are a few counterarguments that don’t favor Shanahan.
The probability of the team that had scored two field goals on six drives — one came on a muffed punt return — during the first half was slim to none had they gotten the ball back with under a minute to play. Of course, that’s before you account for a kicker that had the yips.
It’s the playoffs. You play to win. This is about you and not them. Your best chance to score is when you have the ball. Jennings's long play bailed the offense and what was a minute’s worth of poor clock management.
Why do NFL head coaches routinely have issues with end-of-half situations? Well, for starters, they don’t have a lot of experience with it. Sure, they practice it, but there’s no way to simulate short-yardage situations where you may or may not have a first down.
That’s not excusing Shanahan or 95 percent of other coaches that struggle toward the end of the half. How many coaches re-watch the games chronologically if we put ourselves in their shoes? The answer starts with a Z.
Most are watching cut-ups of plays or play types on certain downs. Coaches are the best in the world at what they do, but they refuse to acknowledge or evolve from these end-of-half blunders. Some teams have someone that can tell the head coach when it’s appropriate to either go for it on fourth down or use other timeouts.
But having someone tell you what to do in a specific situation when you spent endless hours during the previous week preparing for the game isn’t easy. It’s a trust issue and a roadblock unlikely to change anytime soon.