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Super Bowl 54: 49ers HC Kyle Shanahan must go “All Gas, No Brakes”

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Super Bowl, 49ers, Shanahan, Chiefs
© Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The outcome of Super Bowl 54 hinges on San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan’s ability to go “All Gas, No Brakes” against the Kansas City Chiefs — but not necessarily how you think.

The San Francisco 49ers are currently in Miami preparing for Sunday’s Super Bowl LIV matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs. This week’s fanfare comes just three seasons into head coach Kyle Shanahan’s tenure with the Niners, and approximately three years after the Atlanta Falcons — with Shanahan as offensive coordinator — blew a 25-point second-half lead to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI.

Last week, Tim Kawakami of The Athletic interviewed Shanahan about “his role in the Falcons’ Super Bowl collapse.” Kawakami focused on a specific problematic play call, before stating, “Shanahan remains mostly aggressive as a play caller, but that’s not solely about picking pass plays. It’s about focusing in on a defense’s prime weakness and attacking that spot relentlessly.”

For reference, the Baltimore Ravens and the 49ers were the only two NFL teams with more rushing attempts than passing attempts during the regular season and playoffs.

After discussing the 49ers’ “massively run-heavy game” against the Green Bay Packers, Kawakami noted Shanahan was forced to call his first pass play in nearly a half of football, which proved to be successful.” Kawakami ended his point by stating:

“Lesson learned? Shanahan isn’t too interested in a direct correlation between the Super Bowl loss and some more conservative calls with a big lead these days, but he’s not ducking the potential cause and effect, either.” – Tim Kawakami

Correlation? Perhaps. But not causation or “cause and effect.” In fact, the opposite is true.

Shanahan must take a page out of his defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s playbook on Sunday, and call plays using Saleh’s mantra of “All Gas, No Brakes.” In order for the gold, red and white confetti to shower Hard Rock Stadium at the end of Sunday’s contest, the 49ers’ head coach has to overcome two challenging hurdles: Shanahan needs to be aggressive on fourth downs and he needs to improve his lackluster clock management.

“All Gas, No Brakes” has nothing to do with San Francisco’s lack of passing attack in the 2020 NFL playoffs. Albeit unlikely against the high-powered Chiefs, if the 49ers can hold a considerable lead while exclusively running the ball, then have at it, Shanahan.

Just please keep your offense on the field on 4th-and-short.

49ers’ Incorrect Fourth Down Decisions

Shanahan is one of the best — if not the best — play-designers in the NFL, and when he gets into a groove as a play-caller, he’s nearly unstoppable. However, when the Niners’ offense is forced into 4th-and-short situations, Shanahan is perhaps at his worst. Luckily for San Francisco, Shanahan’s deficiency in this area has yet to cost the 49ers any of their last three games, but as Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien recently learned, when you have the opportunity to put a team like the Kansas City Chiefs away and fail to do so, the consequences are often dire.

In Week 17, the 49ers faced the Seattle Seahawks for the top seed in the NFC and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. San Francisco dominated their NFC-West rivals during the first half of the contest, as they jumped out to a 10-point lead while holding the Seahawks to just 35 yards, as the two teams neared the end of the first half. When the 49ers reached a 4th-and-short situation inside the Seattle 7-yard line, Shanahan opted to kick a short field goal instead of aggressively going for the knockout blow, and the correct analytical decision.

San Francisco kicker Robbie Gould‘s short field goal extended the 49ers’ lead from a two-score lead to a two-score lead. With the gift of hope for a potential comeback, the Seahawks scored touchdowns on each of their second-half drives, until rookie linebacker Dre Greenlaw saved the day — and the Niners’ season — in the final seconds of the game:


Shanahan’s decisions were more passive in the 49ers’ following game against the Minnesota Vikings, although the game eventually turned into a 17-point victory. The Niners kicked a short field goal on 4th-and-2 to extend their one-score lead to a one-score lead, and punted a pair of 4th-and-1 attempts, including one at midfield.

Against the Packers, Shanahan’s conservative decisions continued, turning a blowout victory into a far-too-close contest. The 49ers chose to punt twice on 4th-and-1, including from the Packers’ 39-yard line, and again failed to step on an opponents’ throat by instead kicking a field goal on 4th-and-2 from Green Bay’s 9-yard line, which extended San Francisco’s three-score lead to another three-score lead.

49ers’ Clock Management Problems

During Shanahan’s tenure in San Francisco, the 49ers have consistently left points on the field, and given opposing offenses extra opportunities to score in the closing minutes of first halves and at the end of games. The Niners’ clock management problems were on display again against the Packers. These ongoing failures have cost the team dearly in the past, and although they were of limited importance in the NFC Championship game, these issues must be rectified prior to facing a stronger team like the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl 54.

Shanahan’s clock management was problematic during the second quarter and in the second half of the contest. Thanks to a botched snap by quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the 49ers took over at their 25-yard line with over five minutes remaining in the first half, and a three-score lead. One would expect San Francisco to use their four-minute offense to attempt to score while running time off the clock and forcing Rodgers from receiving the ball with timeouts to burn and ample time to drive the field.

Shanahan called the type of run-heavy drive expected from a four-minute offense. Unfortunately, the 49ers continuously failed — or forgot — to run the play clock down as they drove down the field:

Super Bowl 54, 49ers, Shanahan

San Francisco unnecessarily left an extra 50 seconds on the clock on this drive, allowing the Packers to save all three of their timeouts for Rodgers’ two-minute drill — which didn’t last long thanks to cornerback Emmanuel Moseley. Although the clock management mistake worked out for the team in the end, the question remains: Does Shanahan realize he made a mistake? Because Kansas City quarterback Mahomes is the type of QB who makes opposing teams pay for their mistakes in these types of situations.

The above example of clock mismanagement is commonplace in the NFL, but the following example is a bit more confusing. The 49ers were in the midst of potentially game-ending drive in the latter half of the third quarter, and they made no secret of their intentions of running out the clock, as they ran the ball on each play of the quarter. However, San Francisco forgot an integral aspect of running out the game clock — running out the play clock, as they chose to snap the ball with ample time as they drove down the field:

Super Bowl 54, 49ers, Shanahan

What makes this clock mismanagement example particularly confusing is in the fourth quarter, the team worked the play clock to near-perfection. Once the fourth quarter began, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and punter Mitch Wishnowsky ran the clock down to the wire, indicating they received specific instructions from their coaching staff:

Super Bowl 54, 49ers, Shanahan

Super Bowl 54, 49ers, Shanahan

When you’re running out the clock, 21 seconds in the third quarter are worth 21 seconds in the fourth quarter — so why not use them appropriately? 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan needs to be aggressive on fourth down, and he must fix his clock management problems if he expects to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy on Sunday night.

Nitpicky? Perhaps. But Super Bowl champions deal with these deficiencies now, not after they lose the big game due to a easily fixable mishaps.

Food for thought. Will we look back on this team as being merely good, or one of the best of this storied franchise?

If Shanahan can go “All Gas, No Brakes,” the San Francisco 49ers will finally complete their Quest for Six this Sunday.

Chris Wilson is the Lead Writer for Locked on 49ers - part of the Locked On Podcast Network. You may have seen Chris Wilson’s work on NFL game theory, statistical analysis and film breakdowns at FanSided, Niner Noise, 49ers Webzone, ClutchPoints, Insidethe49 and others. Follow Chris Wilson on Twitter @cgawilson.

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San Francisco 49ers

Colton McKivitz Scouting Report, Trent Williams and OL Depth Chart

Brian Peacock

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© Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
  • Is Trent Williams an upgrade at left tackle over the retired Joe Staley?
  • Scouting report on fifth round tackle Colton McKivitz
  • Tom Compton vs Daniel Brunskill at right guard
  • Battle for the final roster spot on the offensive line

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San Francisco 49ers

PODCAST: The Brandon Aiyuk Episode

Brian Peacock

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© Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
  • Pick 25 in the 2020 draft, WR Brandon Aiyuk out of Arizona State
  • Scouting report, strengths, weaknesses
  • How Aiyuk went from community college corner to first round reciever
  • Challenges for Aiyuk to reach his immense ceiling with the 49ers

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San Francisco 49ers

49ers Surprise During Action-Packed 2020 NFL Draft, but at what Cost?

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49ers 2020 Draft, Javon Kinlaw
© Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco 49ers filled three immediate needs during the 2020 NFL Draft, but were first-round draft picks DT Javon Kinlaw and WR Brandon Aiyuk — and new starting LT Trent Williams — worth the cost?

This is the first in a three-part series analyzing the San Francisco 49ers’ 2020 “draft masterclass.” The Niners’ draft has been ranked by analysts as one of the NFL’s best, although it takes years before a draft class can be properly assessed. So instead of merely grading these college talents before their first NFL snaps, we’ll take a look at the 49ers’ picks — and more importantly — the 49ers’ process.

San Francisco’s general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan were full of surprises during the 2020 NFL Draft, beginning in the first round. Every 2020 mock draft was immediately ripped to shreds as the vast majority of fans and analysts expected the Niners to trade away one of their prized first-round picks for additional draft capital. Instead, the 49ers traded both of their Day 1 picks but ended the evening with just two players, and no selections for the second day of the draft.

Lynch and Shanahan started their “draft tradefest” in a dream scenario: on the clock with the consensus top-2 wide receivers in the draft — Jerry Jeudy and CeeDee Lamb — on the board, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on the phone. The Bucs wanted to move up a single spot to the No. 13 selection — the pick the receiver-needy 49ers obtained via their trade of star defensive tackle DeForest Buckner — which would leave at least one of the two top receiver prospects on the board for San Francisco.

The two teams executed the trade, which scored the Niners a fouth-rounder in exchange for one of the 49ers’ seventh-round picks. Minutes later, San Francisco was back on the clock, and both receivers were still on the board. But instead of taking advantage of the situation they lucked themselves into, the Lynch and Shanahan did what they seem to do every year — follow their collective gut or the opinion of a trusted contact outside the organization — and drafted Buckner’s hopeful replacement, South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw:

 

49ers Draft Pick No. 14: DT Javon Kinlaw

On Tuesday, Lynch spoke about the decision on FOX Sports’ The Herd with Collin Cowherd:

“We were incredibly comfortable with Will Muschamp because he gave us such an accurate depiction of Deebo Samuel last year. I didn’t know Will. I met him once. But we called on Deebo and he hit all his strengths, but he also hit his, not really weaknesses, but just realities of who the person is. And he depicted Deebo so well, a year later I said, ‘Kyle, we’ve got to pick up the phone and call Will about Kinlaw because he was so darn honest.” -John Lynch

Despite Muschamp’s biased opinion of his former player, there’s a lot to like about the raw Kinlaw:

Standing at 6-foot-5 and 324 pounds, he is shorter and stouter than his predecessor. And surprisingly, given his massive size, the DT has proven to be a better defender against the pass than the run. In 2019, Kinlaw received a 90.7 pass-rushing grade from Pro Football Focus (PFF), despite logging just six sacks during the season, and 10 only sacks over his three-year college career:

49ers DT Javon Kinlaw – College Defensive Statistics
Tackles Def Int Fumbles
Year School Conf Class Pos G Solo Ast Tot Loss Sk Int Yds Avg TD PD FR Yds TD FF
*2017 South Carolina SEC SO DL 7 12 5 17 2.0 0.0 0 0 0 1 2 1
*2018 South Carolina SEC JR DL 10 15 15 30 9.0 4.0 0 0 0 5 0 2
2019 South Carolina SEC SR DL 12 15 20 35 6.0 6.0 0 0 0 2 2 0
Career South Carolina 42 40 82 17.0 10.0 0 0 0 8 4 3

 

Since there are no easy games in the NFL, the 49ers hope they drafted the overpowering and productive version of Kinlaw and not the version who disappeared when South Carolina faced weaker opponents.

My initial assessment of the Kinlaw selection is I like the player, but I’m not a fan of the 49ers spending the draft pick they acquired in exchange for Buckner on a less-talented but cheaper version of the stud defensive lineman. San Francisco should have entered this year’s draft with one primary goal: improving their 2020 roster enough to win one more game than they did in 2019 — and “trading” Buckner for Kinlaw makes the Niners worse, albeit richer, in the short term.

Perhaps this pick would have been a bit sweeter if Lynch didn’t promptly waste the fourth-round selection he just obtained from Tampa Bay. Unfortunately, the 49ers’ fourth-year GM — in the role normally played by his partner-in-crime Shanahan — fell in love with a prospect and wasted valuable draft capital to unnecessarily trade up for the one player he desperately needed to draft.

We’ll break down the San Francisco 49ers’ second first-round selection — and how the Niners got there — next.

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