San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan is universally regarded as one of the great offensive masterminds in the NFL. He’s overseen Robert Griffin III’s mesmerizing Offensive Rookie of the Year season in Washington, Matt Ryan’s MVP campaign with the Atlanta Falcons, and the incredible rise of 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy, a finalist for this year’s MVP.
All that’s missing is a Super Bowl ring. Shanahan has been close. Agonizingly close. Except…
…You know the rest of the story.
Kyle Shanahan: “Playoff Choker”
For all of Shanahan’s brilliance, the two Super Bowl failures (not to mention the squandered 10-point 4th quarter lead in the NFC Championship against the Los Angeles Rams two years ago) have given him the reputation of a “playoff choker.” The small sample size is overshadowed by the magnitude of his offense’s meltdowns.
The No. 1 ranked Falcons offense gained just 48 yards on their final four drives after going up 28-3 on the Patriots. Matt Ryan had a critical a sack-fumble that resulted in a Patriots touchdown, and another sack that took them out of comfortable field goal range up 28-20 in the closing minutes.
Against the Chiefs, the 49ers offense went punt, punt, turnover on downs, and interception in the most lopsided 4th quarter margin (-21) in Super Bowl history.
In the months following the loss to the Chiefs, Shanahan explained the difference between the two defeats to The Athletic’s Tim Kawakami.
“The Atlanta game was so different,” Shanahan said. “Like, I get the crap I’ve gotta take from the Atlanta game (for a few play calls when the Falcons were ahead in the second half). But in the Atlanta game, we went on an 85-yard drive on offense in the third quarter to go up 28-3 with five minutes to go in the third quarter. From that point on, New England had 390 yards of offense and like one incompletion. So, like, whatever, we didn’t convert our two third downs. Tom Brady just … who gets 390 yards in a quarter? They just went off. And it is what it is.
“This one was different to me. We were up 10. It wasn’t like we blew a huge lead. It was two possessions. And on those two possessions, they scored and our two possessions we didn’t convert a third down. And so it flipped like that and it was just over really quick. But it wasn’t like, our guys, we blew anything. It was just, they converted a third-and-long and we didn’t. It got flipped like that. It was a good football game between two good teams. I bet it was real fun for people to watch. But just … I hate watching it. I don’t enjoy watching it. I’m waiting to get to a third one that I enjoy to watch.”
Is the script already flipping?
This is a distinctly different playoff run for Shanahan. If his past playoff failures have been defined by losing seemingly unassailable leads, this year could be defined (at least, in part) by stirring comebacks.
A common knock against his 49ers teams has been the lack of 4th quarter comebacks, an indicator of a front-running team that can’t overcome late-game deficits.
The 49ers are 0-30 under Kyle Shanahan including playoffs when trailing by 7-plus points entering the 4th quarter, per @ESPNStatsInfo.
— Lindsey Thiry (@LindseyThiry) January 21, 2024
The 49ers were able to rally past the Green Bay Packers 24-21, and lodged an even better comeback the following week in the NFC Championship, overcoming a 24-7 halftime score for a 34-31 win over the Detroit Lions. It was the largest comeback in NFC Championship history, as well as the biggest halftime deficit overcome in any NFC playoff game.
In contrast, the 2019 49ers didn’t trail in either of their 17-point playoff wins, and the 2016 Falcons thrashed the Seattle Seahawks and Packers by a combined 80-41 without facing a second half deficit. There was virtually no resistance until the fourth quarters of doom in both Super Bowls.
There are parallels between Shanahan and Andy Reid
What’s often said about Kyle Shanahan was once a descriptor for his Super Bowl counterpart.
It’s easy to look at Andy Reid right now as a guaranteed Hall of Fame, multi-time champion head coach. Before the 2019 season, he was essentially in Shanahan’s position for an even longer timeframe. He famously dropped three consecutive NFC Championship appearances with the Philadelphia Eagles, and squandered historic 38-10 and 21-3 leads with the Kansas City Chiefs when Alex Smith was his quarterback. His one Super Bowl shot with the Eagles was marred by poor clock management.
These were the headlines written about Reid over the years.
Reid is a bit of an outlier—his 15 postseason berths and 29 playoff games coached before winning his first ring are NFL records by a wide margin—but he’s as good an example as any of being a “playoff choker” until you aren’t. The 2019 Chiefs remain the only Super Bowl champion to win all of their postseason games after trailing by double digits.
“Playoff Choker” Reid seems like a distant memory now that he’s in the middle of coaching a dynasty. Given Shanahan’s current run of four Conference Championship games and two Super Bowl trips over a five-season span, he’s arguably created his own dynasty in the NFC. It’d be fitting if Shanahan’s breakthrough moment came against the coach whose own unwanted reputation was shed at his expense.