Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
We’re all familiar with the phrase “It is better to love and have lost than never to have loved at all.” It’s a statement as old as time itself, and one that says a lot about the 2019 San Francisco 49ers.
It was a disappointing end, but going from 4-12 to 13-3 and making Super Bowl LIV is a sensational turnaround. The key pieces were finally healthy, the defense introduced the nation to a legion of stars, the run game exploded, third-year head coach Kyle Shanahan called brilliant game after brilliant game, George Kittle is inevitable, and Jimmy Garoppolo churned out a great story by fully recovering from a torn ACL and starting all 16 games in the regular season.
Few were ready for this 49ers juggernaut, and it showed all season. They consistently plowed through teams with all phases stepping up at different times, defeated the Seahawks in Week 17 to secure the NFC West and the conference’s #1 seed, and best of all they embarrassed the long hated rival Packers twice.
Unfortunately they could not end this success with a Super Bowl victory over the Chiefs. Hats off to Patrick Mahomes and (especially) Andy Reid for earning their first ring in a hard fought, well deserved win. But this was also a game where the 49ers had numerous chances to bring home title number six and yet a fourth quarter collapse squandered that opportunity.
Of course there have been numerous scapegoats from Garoppolo to Shanahan, to even defensive coordinator Robert Saleh for failing to adjust his defense in the fourth quarter. But as you win as a team, you also lose as one as well, and while some players/coaches deserve more criticism than others, this was a game San Francisco flat out blew.
Especially with a legion of young 49ers fans who have not seen the franchise’s glory days of the 80s and 90s, a second Super Bowl loss is not something fans want an article on. But if you’re brave enough to open this, let’s take a look at five moments the 49ers squandered on Sunday, plays the team will certainly learn and attempt to improve from.
The Conservative Approach At The End of the First Half
Fans are split on how Shanahan treated the end of the first half, and he himself said after the game he would go through with it again.
On one hand, you have those saying that Shanahan was killing the clock to prevent a bionic being at quarterback from scoring to close the half. On the other, you have those criticizing Shanahan’s more conservative approach by running the ball twice to start the drive, claiming it was a wasted opportunity to go up by 7 in a game where the 49ers would get the ball to start the second half.
As you may have guessed from the title of this section, I side with the criticism of Shanahan’s handling of the end of the first half. While in theory it’s reasonable to prevent Mahomes from getting the ball back, there’s a time and place for this level of thinking. This was not that time. San Francisco needed to stay aggressive against the league’s most explosive passing offense and karma came back to haunt them with a controversial offensive pass interference call on Kittle to close the half.
Holding onto timeouts was another obvious mistake, but that goes without saying if you are on this section’s side.
Garoppolo Misses Samuel
This wasn’t quite as noticeable as some of the other moments this article mentions, but came at a time where San Francisco’s win probability was extremely high. Up 10 points fresh off a Mahomes turnover and in need of a drive to seal the fate of the highly lauded Kansas City offense for good, the 49ers instead gave the ball right back to the Chiefs and witnessed 21 unanswered points scored on them.
On 2nd and 10, Garoppolo had a chance to hit a potentially big play to explosive rookie Deebo Samuel. Garoppolo was able to execute short yardage plays without any problems thanks to open receivers and yards after the catch, but when asked to push the ball further down the field he gave his critics the ammo they were looking for.
This was one of those plays.
Crossing the middle of the field is Samuel on this play. His speed needs no introduction and it looks like a well placed throw leads to an absolute treasure trove of yards after the catch. The Chiefs bring the pressure, however, and as a result Garoppolo doesn’t step into this throw, sailing the ball high above the arms of an open Samuel.
Some might give the league’s prettiest quarterback the benefit of the doubt here, as he was asked to make a quick throw under pressure. Here’s the problem with that: You pay a quarterback elite QB money to make throws like this, and the franchise signal caller is among the richest at his position. Sure, Garoppolo has proven he could do that at numerous occasions in 2019 (most notably on Thursday Night at Arizona), but unfortunately misses like these will get picked upon even further because of how big the stage is at the Super Bowl.
A stop on the ensuing third down gave the Chiefs the ball back, and the offense clicked on all cylinders at last.
3rd And 15
This needs no explanation. After a successful challenge from Shanahan on a “catch” from Tyreek Hill the 49ers appeared to catch a lucky break, on pace deliver a crucial fourth quarter stop that would deliver the Lombardi Trophy back to the Bay Area.
Mahomes and Hill had other plans.
Deforest Buckner (who had a sensational game) was able to apply the heat on Mahomes, but the secondary got exposed at the worst possible time. The defense doubles the receiver at the top, but Kansas City was most likely counting on that, because that frees up space for Hill and allows him to cut outside without anyone near him.
As Hill is about to break inside, that’s when Mahomes throws the ball his way. It’s a credit to the quarterback’s quality that Mahomes is able to fire this with such anticipation when his receiver isn’t even fully turned around, and doing it against intense pressure as well. But allowing a 3rd and 15 to be converted into a first down was not a good look for this defense.
Bosa Misses Mahomes On The Go Ahead Drive
Despite what some people might tell you, Nick Bosa did not, in fact, disappear against the Chiefs. He finished with 1 sack, but that does not tell the full story. He was applying constant pressure throughout the game, and had 2-3 plays where he would’ve had additional sacks if not for the cyborg scrambling ability and spidey senses Mahomes possessed.
On this 2nd and 5, Mahomes went from a crucial sack to escaping it for a key first down on the go ahead drive in the fourth quarter.
This is an example of a great defensive pass rush being beat by an even better play from the quarterback. Mahomes was able to sense the edge pressure and climbed up just in the nick of time to escape Bosa’s clutches, firing this to Travis Kelce to keep the drive alive.
As automatic as the Chiefs offense was in the postseason, it’s not guaranteed that they’d be able to convert yet another third and long. But I suppose that’s not the case when you’re facing a quarterback as amazing as Mahomes. Even for his struggles, there was a reason he was awarded Super Bowl MVP, as he made big play after big play when the Chiefs needed him most.
Which leads me to the last moment….
Garoppolo Misses Emmanuel Sanders
Along with Kyle Shanahan’s management at the end of the first half and throughout the entire fourth quarter, this was one of the most scrutinized moments of Super Bowl LIV. If the 49ers score here, any criticism Shanahan and Garoppolo sustained throughout the course of the game is offset. They could not squander this moment down 24-20.
Sadly, that’s exactly what happened.
Garoppolo managed to escape the previous play with a dropped interception from corner Kendall Fuller, but could not take advantage on the very next play. I’ve seen some people say Kendrick Bourne was also an option in the middle of the field, but Garoppolo made the correct read aiming this for Emmanuel Sanders.
The problem? The accuracy was bad. Even an under thrown ball potentially results in defensive pass interference, as Sanders has his man beat. But the worst miss of the night comes into play instead, and there’s no doubt this will haunt Garoppolo for a long time.
Just as the other missed opportunities will haunt the 49ers for all offseason as they look to silence the noise. This wasn’t a case where the Chiefs had the outright superior gameplan (as both teams gave the other numerous chances to win the game), but one where the 49ers had the game in the bag. What happened instead was the Chiefs becoming the first team in NFL history to win three consecutive playoff games where they trailed by 10+ points.
Still, for all the missed chances, it cannot be denied this was still a terrific season and a rebirth for the 49ers. This was as complete of a team as we’ve seen from the franchise in a long time, bringing back fond memories of the Jim Harbaugh era 49ers in the early 2010s. Furthermore with many of the top pieces returning for 2020 I expect this team to be back in the postseason. Failure to bring the title home shouldn't erase all the good Kyle Shanahan, Jimmy Garoppolo, Nick Bosa, Raheem Mostert, George Kittle, Richard Sherman, etc. accomplished this season.
The question is whether they can learn from Super Bowl’s LIV’s mistakes and moments of stage fright and get back to the big dance next season. All eyes are on the boys of scarlet and gold as they hit the offseason.
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