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Plenty of Blame, only one Scapegoat

Kyle Shanahan isn’t receiving enough criticism for the 49ers collapse Sunday.

San Francisco 49ers v Cleveland Browns Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

There’s a lot of finger pointing following losses, especially when those losses come at the hands of a 10-point underdog starting their third quarterback of the season.

Purdy was inaccurate. Moody missed the game winner. The defense was ridden with poor tackling. The weather was bad. The refs were worse. Injuries to key players. Too many mistakes in a game that ultimately wasn’t indicative of how the 49ers play.

But what shouldn’t be lost in these abnormalities, is that Kyle Shanahan showcased poor game management. This isn’t something new for the head coach. He was too aggressive in a time-sensitive drive at the end of SB LI with the Falcons. He had players questioning his strategy at the end of SB LIV.

Furthermore, he was too passive against the Cowboys at the end of the half last January in the divisional playoffs. His inconsistency with deciding on to-go fourth down situations can be infuriating. And although it is up to the players to execute better, Shanahan should be getting more criticism for his mistakes that re-appeared in their first late-game situation Sunday.

With San Francisco up 17-16, the Niners offense took the field with 3:21 left in the game. This was an obvious four-minute-offense scenario. Instead, we got a three-and-out on three pass plays, resulting in a punt after only 25 seconds taken off the clock. The 49ers running game wasn’t exactly dominating, but to not start the drive with the ground attack is an egregious error.

When asked about the play-calling at that time, Shanahan pointed out that the one-point lead wasn’t enough for him to feel comfortable burning clock, and that picking up a first down was more important.

Saying the clock doesn’t matter here without a first down is frustrating. If the Niners run the ball on first down, regardless of the yards gained or lost, they can call their next play with roughly 2:35 remaining. After a second down run, the clock stops at the two-minute warning. If you can put Cleveland in a situation where they have to drive down the field against your number one ranked defense in less than two minutes, you have to keep that the priority.

Instead, the Browns get the ball with 2:56 and a chance to take the lead. The defense should have held, but a couple of penalties helped Cleveland get in field goal range where they take the lead. Unfortunate, but you have to be confident in putting the defense on the field against a third string quarterback on a rainy day. Even more confident if the opponent has less time, which limits their play calling.

But, Cleveland moved quickly enough that the offense gets the ball back, only needing a field goal to win. And how this game ends also led to some head-scratching about Shanahan’s strategy.

At 1:40, Purdy and company start their drive following a touchback. After a few penalties and a big play by Brandon Aiyuk, the 49ers are in Browns territory and are facing a 3rd and two with 49 seconds to play. They still have one timeout.

This is where the sequence of events is on Kyle Shanahan’s shoulders. Purdy connects with Jauan Jennings to pick up the first down AND Jennings gets out of bounds at the Cleveland 26-yard line, stopping the clock. The Niners have a fresh set of downs and a timeout. All they have to do is put their rookie kicker in the best possible spot to hit the game winner.

Instead, Shanahan calls one running play for three yards, lets the clock run down to 9 seconds, and the rest is history. In the span of four minutes of game time, Shanahan went from aggressive when he shouldn’t have been too passive when he shouldn’t have been. There was too much time left for them to not try for another positive play and shorten the field goal.

The weather was bad - so you can look at it in two ways. The first is that Shanahan didn’t want to risk a potential fumble on the snap or handoff by running another play. That’s fine, except that same risk exists on trotting your rookie kicker to nail a 40+ yard field goal.

The snap or hold could have been bad, or the rain and wind could have adjusted the flight of the ball from Moody’s foot. Having any positive gain to decrease the length of the path to the uprights would have been a better option.

Shanahan is a genius. His offensive play-calling is the best in the league, hands down. There isn’t another head coach in the league I would trade him for. In the grand scheme of things, this loss will likely be something forgotten by season’s end. But how he has managed late-game situations historically, including Sunday, is cause for concern. If the problem can’t be corrected during a regular-season affair with a two-score underdog, the worry will only worsen come playoff time.