MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. - San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan dared the best player in the NFL to beat him by being timid and conservative, by being willing to take three points instead of pushing for seven, by choosing to burn clock instead of trying to press his advantage.
And yet still, the 49ers were less than nine minutes away from winning the Super Bowl title Sunday. They led the Kansas City Chiefs 20-10, were dominating on both offense and defense, and had the ball with less than nine minutes to play in the fourth quarter.
They subsequently collapsed in a dramatic and comprehensive fashion.
Shanahan and the 49ers gave Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes an inch. He took so much more - he took away San Francisco's sixth Super Bowl title, leading Kansas City to its first championship in 50 years with a 31-20 win.
The 49ers' head coach came to the Super Bowl with the goal of changing his legacy. Despite being the most brilliant offensive mind in the NFL and one of the league's best head coaches, young or old, Shanahan is best known for "28-3" - the lead the Atlanta Falcons had over the New England Patriots three years ago in Super Bowl LI.
The Falcons lost that game. And Shanahan, then the Falcons' offensive coordinator, has been handed the majority of the blame.
Sunday's 20-10 scoreline won't be emblazoned on t-shirts, but the loss should be worn by the 49ers' head coach.
Maybe it's just bad luck, and, of course, it isn't all on the coach - he only calls the plays, the players must execute. His quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, was flustered in the fourth quarter behind an offensive line that broke down. The Niners' defense - which was controlling the contest - shattered. But Shanahan is the common denominator of two of the more shocking fourth-quarter collapses in Super Bowl history.
In Shanahan's seven career fourth-quarter drives as an offensive play-caller, his offenses are yet to score a point. On Sunday, the 49ers' first two punts of the contest arrived on their first two drives of the fourth quarter. The Chiefs took the subsequent drives and turned their 20-10 deficit into a 24-20 lead.
And yet, still, San Francisco had a chance to win the game late. They had the ball, down four, with 2:44 to play. The Niners mustered only seven plays and barely crossed midfield, turning the ball over on downs and handing the victory to Kansas City, who added another touchdown to the scoreboard when merely a first down or two would have sufficed.
You have free articles remaining.
"We didn't take our opportunities," George Kittle said. "I could give you every cliche in the book - we just didn't get it done."
Shanahan's play-calling in the fourth quarter will surely be parsed, dissected, and criticized by 49ers fans for years to come. But it was his larger choices - his decisions to kick two field goals instead of trying to convert reasonable fourth downs in an effort for seven points and to effectively concede a possession at the end of the first half - as to not allow Kansas City another - that will loom ever larger as time passes.
When the Chiefs failed on a third-and-long with 1:53 remaining in the second quarter of a 10-10 game. Shanahan, with three timeouts in the holster, didn't use any of them - he let the clock run.
Because of that, the 49ers didn't run their first offensive play on the subsequent series until there were 59 seconds remaining in the half.
Giving Shanahan the benefit of the doubt, the 49ers had bad field position, and the Chiefs had three timeouts and the most dangerous quarterback in the NFL - by letting the clock run out, Shanahan was ensuring that Mahomes wouldn't touch the ball again in the first half.
But the downside was obvious: any chance of the 49ers scoring was significantly limited by the lack of time on the clock. It was later eliminated by George Kittle's offensive pass interference on a 42-yard catch with six seconds remaining in the half. While replay showed that Kittle did push off on the play, the call was unquestionably pedantic.
"We should have gotten points," Shanahan said of the drive.
And while the penalty ensured that, it was Shanahan who set it up.
Shanahan sent a message with that decision - an unmistakable one: he was scared.
And while there was good reason to be - proven in the fourth quarter Sunday - you simply cannot win a Super Bowl that way.