Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

One area Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers must improve

Marc Adams
Jun 22, 2022 at 11:03 AM--

Two massive games. Two double-digit 4th quarter leads. Two heart-breaking losses.

You can stop right there and fans of the San Francisco 49ers know exactly what you're talking about. Painfully, the franchise that once referred to itself as "Camelot," and became the first NFL team to win five Super Bowls, has experienced some difficult losses.

There were three consecutive heartbreaking losses in the Jim Harbaugh days. And now Kyle Shanahan's 49ers have lost two big games, Super Bowl LIV in February 2020, and the NFC Championship Game earlier this year. And we're not even discussing the dark years when the team struggled under the likes of Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan, Jim Tomsula, and Chip Kelly. Those names make me want to throw up.

Whether it's that the last two losses are fresher, or that both losses came on the heels of 4th quarter leads, it seems like 49ers fans struggle more with the Shanahan losses than they do with the Harbaugh losses.

It's the last two big-game losses that lead me to suggest that Shanahan and the 49ers need to improve in one specific area—closing out championship games when you have a double-digit lead in the final quarter. Let's break this down.

Super Bowl LIV

The 49ers entered the 4th quarter of Super Bowl LIV with a 10-point lead over the Kansas City Chiefs. The defense was doing an amazing job of keeping Patrick Mahomes in check, holding him and Andy Reid's high-flying offense to only 10 points. It was 20-10 at the end of the 3rd quarter.

Even after Kansas City put together a 12-play, 52-yard drive, the 49ers' defense still came up big with a Tarvarius Moore interception, turning the Chiefs away yet again. At this point, with 11:57 remaining in the game, the 49ers had all the momentum and seemed destined to win a sixth Lombardi trophy.

1st 49ers fourth-quarter drive (5 plays, 17 yards, 3:04)
But Shanahan's offense followed that takeaway with a five-play drive that gained only 17 yards and used up only 3:04. That drive consisted of two runs and three passes. Make note of this, because you're going to see a theme building here.

Kansas City got the ball back with 8:54 remaining. The Chiefs put together a 10-play, 83-yard drive that led to a touchdown and brought them to within a field goal. This was, of course, the drive that included the infamous 3rd and 15 conversion. Painful.

2nd 49ers fourth-quarter drive (3 plays, 5 yards, 1:03)
The 49ers' second drive of the quarter was even worse than the first one. A three and out, late in the Super Bowl, when you're trying to protect your lead to win a championship. A Raheem Mostert run gained five yards on first down. Then two incomplete passes forced a punt.

This was the last time the 49ers would lead in the Super Bowl, as another Kansas City touchdown drive made it 24-20 Chiefs. How would the 49ers respond?

3rd 49ers fourth-quarter drive (7 plays, 27 yards, 1:19)
Mostert started the drive with a 17-yard run. That was the last time the 49ers would run the ball in Super Bowl LIV. Six pass attempts would follow. Two were completed for short gains, three were incomplete, and one resulted in a sack.

4th 49ers fourth-quarter drive (2 plays, 0 yards, 15 seconds)
On the 49ers' final drive of Super Bowl LIV, they attempted two passes. One pass was incomplete. The last one was intercepted.

There were four 4th quarter possessions for the 49ers' offense. Two of those with a lead. On the two possessions with the lead, the 49ers ran eight plays, gained only 22 yards, and even worse, used only 4:07 of the game clock. On those two drives, they ran the ball three times and passed the ball five times.

In all, the 49ers ran 17 offensive plays in the 4th quarter. Four were runs and 13 were passes. The 49ers gained only 49 total yards in the final quarter.

If you take away the two passes on the final drive (those needed to be passes because of the small amount of time remaining), there still were 11 passes vs. 4 runs. Only four runs in the 4th quarter of the Super Bowl, for a team that ran the ball so well, and had a quarterback who was questionable in spots like this.

Hall of Famer Steve Young said after the game that the 49ers had it, but they stopped running the ball and blew it.

2021 NFC Championship Game

The 49ers entered the 4th quarter of the 2021 NFC Championship Game with a 10-point lead. Sound familiar?

Before the 49ers' first possession of the 4th quarter, the Los Angeles Rams scored a touchdown to move within a field goal. Nursing a small, three-point lead, the 49ers received the kickoff and began the first of only three 4th quarter possessions.

1st 49ers fourth-quarter drive (6 plays, 36 yards, 3:35)
The drive broke down like this:

  • Pass to Elijah Mitchell for a first down.
  • Incomplete to Brandon Aiyuk.
  • Pass to Deebo Samuel for a first down.
  • Mitchell run for 8 yards.
  • Mitchell run for no gain.
  • Kyle Juszczyk run for no gain on 3rd down.
  • On 4th & 2, from the SF 46, and the 49ers tried to get the Rams to jump offsides. It didn't work.
  • The 49ers punted from the LA 49-yard line with about 10 minutes left in the game.

On this drive, the 49ers were actually trying to run the ball. They gained eight yards on a first down play but were unable to gain two more yards for another first down. They were forced to punt.

The next play was the Jaquiski Tartt dropped interception, followed by the Jimmie Ward 15-yard penalty. The Rams had new life and tied the game at 17 with a field goal.

2nd 49ers fourth-quarter drive (3 plays, -5 yards, :23)
How would the 49ers respond? Not well.

  • Incomplete pass to George Kittle.
  • A delay of game penalty made it 2 and 15.
  • Incomplete pass to Aiyuk (almost picked off).
  • Incomplete pass to JaMycal Hasty.
  • 49ers punt with 6:32 remaining.

With the game tied, the 49ers didn't even attempt to run the ball. The delay of game penalty didn't help, though.

The Rams followed the 49ers' anemic drive by kicking a field goal to take a three-point lead. And with the game on the line, backed up in their own territory, the 49ers attempted to mount a drive that could tie the game or take the lead. But it was short-lived.

3rd 49ers fourth-quarter drive (3 plays, -3 yards, :37)

  • Pass batted down at the line of scrimmage. Intended for Hasty.
  • Pass complete to Jennings for a loss of three yards.
  • Jimmy Garoppolo intercepted on a pass to Hasty.

The final 49ers' drive lasted less than 40 seconds of game time and actually lost yardage.

So the 49ers had three 4th quarter possessions. 12 offensive plays (9 passes, 3 runs). Zero points. The defense can't hold, and the 49ers lost another heartbreaker.

The 49ers' final two drives lasted only 60 seconds combined. And the one drive in which they had the lead? Only 36 yards were gained, and only 3:35 of the game clock was used.

Two 4th quarter leads were lost, in the biggest games of the season. In championship games. With double-digit leads. Clearly, Shanahan and the 49ers need to improve upon this. It may be their biggest area of needed improvement.

I'm not an NFL coach, so I'll never claim to know what they know. But there are four reasons why I think the 49ers blew those double-digit 4th quarter leads.

1. Lack of running game.

In the Super Bowl, it felt like the lack of a running game was a decision Shanahan made. I base that on the calls he made. He ran the ball only four times in the 4th quarter of the Super Bowl. Four times. Mostert had rumbled for over 200 yards two weeks earlier.

In the NFC Championship Game, the Rams changed their approach to the 49ers, from previous games, and basically dared Garoppolo to beat them. They sold out more against the run and decided that if they were going to lose, it wasn't going to be because of the 49ers' rushing attack.

The 49ers only ran the ball three times in the 4th quarter of the NFC Championship, but that was, in part, due to how the Rams were playing the 49ers.

The team drafted Ty Davis-Price in the 2022 draft. I can only think, and hope, this is their response to not running the ball late in these big games. When you have a 10-point lead in a championship game, you should be able to put teams away by running the clock and moving the ball. That didn't happen in these two games.

Two championship losses following 10-point leads. Combined, the 49ers ran the ball only seven times. However that happened, it can't be allowed to happen again.

2. Lack of creativity.

By "lack of creativity," I'm mainly speaking of two things: play-action and misdirection. Everyone lauds the 49ers for having a creative running game. And it's true. There's a lot of movement, misdirection, and Shanahan builds his plays so they look alike, meaning you often won't be able to tell if it's a running play or a passing play.

They are very effective with their play-action game, too. And when they are using play-action, plus a lot of misdirection and movement, the entire offense is as creative as any out there.

But I remember noticing, in the Super Bowl especially, that the misdirection and creative playcalling that was successful in the first three quarters, disappeared in the fourth quarter. I'm not sure why that happened, but when the creativity isn't there, and Garoppolo has to survive on just pure passing, the offense struggles at times.

Now, I realize there are times when play-action can't be as effective. The Rams' game plan was to do everything to shut down the 49ers' run game and take their chances with Garoppolo. It worked. And it worked because, without the threat of a running game, there is no play-action game to rely on. And when Garoppolo doesn't have play-action, he struggles.

It happened that way in the NFC Championship Game, as well as late in Super Bowl LIV.

3. Lack of QB effectiveness when the play breaks down.

Let's face it. Sometimes the play breaks down. Sometimes there are missed assignments, or the defense has the perfect call for the play, or the offensive play-caller makes the wrong call. There are multiple reasons why a play can break down.

In a huge game, like the Super Bowl or any other championship game, the pressure is much greater, and the level of play is amplified. When the play breaks down in those games, especially late in games when it's close and everything is on the line, it's even more important to have a quarterback who can make things happen on his own.

In the final quarter of the NFC Championship Game, the play broke down a few different times, forcing Garoppolo to scramble out of the pocket. In those instances, his passes ended up resulting in two incompletions (one was almost an interception), and the game-sealing interception. Late in the Super Bowl, there were similar plays.

Since his knee injury in 2018, Garoppolo has lacked some of the ability to escape and improvise, which made him special before the injury.

With the drafting of Trey Lance and the impending departure of Garoppolo, the 49ers should be able to grow into being a more effective offense when the play breaks down.

4. Lack of using key players in key moments.

For whatever reason, the 49ers' offense has failed to get the ball into the hands of their best players down the stretch in these big games. In Super Bowl LIV, Mostert, the team's best offensive weapon in the 2019 postseason, touched the ball only four times in the 4th quarter. Kittle touched the ball once in the 4th quarter. Samuel, who might have been named Super Bowl MVP if the 49ers held on, did not touch the ball at all in the final quarter.

In the NFC Championship, Samuel, the 49ers' best player in 2021, only touched the ball once. Kittle had zero touches.

In contrast, the Chiefs made sure to get the ball to their best players when the game was on the line. Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelsey both had key catches in big moments. And the Rams made sure to get Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham, Jr. the ball when they needed plays.

The 49ers have to be able to run the ball down the stretch. They need to keep being creative. They need their quarterback to make plays even when the called play breaks down. And they need to use their best weapons in key moments of the final quarter, especially in close games.

If the 49ers can improve in this one area, the sky is the limit for this team. They have the best roster in football and should be a favorite to win the Super Bowl for the next handful of years. It's time to build on that and take advantage of the roster by getting better at closing out these championship games.

My heart would certainly appreciate it.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.
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