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Cutting Through the Noise After the 49ers’ Super Bowl Loss

Feb 20, 2024 at 4:40 PM--

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Since the last pass of Super Bowl LVIII (I couldn't even tell you what happened in the aftermath, nor who caught the pass, I turned off as soon as the ball hit his hands), I've surprised myself. One would anticipate that I may have gone through the seven stages usually associated with grief, particularly since it was the third heart-shattering Super Bowl loss of my fandom (I'm a UK Niner who has, in some way, managed to watch, at times excruciatingly, every down of every season since 2005). Alas, no. I'm not even stuck in denial. It happened, we lost, but for once, I accepted it. I had my moments of despair, but overall, I was quite looking forward to a long break from the game, a chance to breathe, reset, and hopefully come back next year.

Then, the crushing avalanche of social media began. Now you and I know that the vast majority of social media is effluvia, Russian bots, and more recently, a marketplace for the more risqué things in the internet sphere, but it's also a forum where the hottest of hot takes can be heard and amplified consistently. Be it Kyle Shanahan's playcalling, the future of certain key players, or the overtime rules, everyone with access to a mobile device has had some sort of input on the post-Super Bowl fallout. So, what I'm going to do today, by way of an introduction to this site, and to you, is break down the hottest talking points around the 49ers right now, and explain why most – not all – of them are missing the real point.

"The 49ers shouldn't have fired Steve Wilks/Steve Wilks is a scapegoat"

Let's start with the most recent and easiest to disprove take that's out there. No one can accuse Shanahan and John Lynch of being unable to make decisions that are risky and unpopular to the wider NFL world – firing a well-regarded (around the league at least) coach two days after a Super Bowl tends to show that you're not much for listening to the noise on the outside. Doing that, though, has led to some bizarre responses, ranging from accusations of scapegoating to even more peculiar race-based arguments.

Let's take the first one – scapegoating. I can only assume that anyone who thinks this is one of those people who either watch highlights or single games, because anyone who's watched the 49ers at any length this season could easily tell you that Steve Wilks was a poor fit. The defense dropped statistically from #1 to #8 in total yards allowed, regressing further throughout the playoffs, whereas the eyeball test showed you players looking at times disbelieving and directionless. Each unit seemed to struggle at different times also - coverage was too often soft and passive, the linebacking corps missed tackles and took bad pursuit angles, while the highly paid defensive line often disappeared for long stretches. In an increasingly ridiculous sideshow, Wilks also had to eventually be dragged out of the booth to the sidelines to attempt to save what was both a flatlining career and season. Think back to games they were pushed around in against Cleveland and Minnesota and ask yourself if Wilks is a scapegoat, or simply just not very good at his job.

Even if your collective memory doesn't stretch any further back than the playoffs, it wasn't hard to see glaring, flashing red flags about the defense and scheme. Yes, both playoff wins were fantastic, stirring comebacks – but they shouldn't have been. The 49ers were by far a better team than the Packers or Lions, respectively, but passive coverage and atrocious run defense made the games much closer than they should have been. The defensive effort in the first half of the NFC Championship game was an utter spineless disgrace, and nearly derailed this team long before they got anywhere near the loss that's now causing such teeth-gnashing. To be honest, I don't think the result of the game had any bearing on Wilks. I think it was coming anyway. It's always felt like an incongruous fit, both in scheme and personality, and I think we'll be feeling better without the uncertainty and strange feeling hanging over the team. This isn't unprecedented either - 49ers fans of a particular vintage will recall Marc Trestman's firing in a press conference following a playoff loss. Welcome to San Francisco. We only take excellence here.

A final note, for the increasingly bizarre corners of social media that tried to make this into a race issue – the 49ers do not have a race problem. You can pretty much evidence that with the fact they've produced and developed more minority coaching and front office staff than most teams in the league. That's why they've had about a thousand third-round picks every year. Alright, the 49ers inevitably draft a running back that ends up on someone else's practice squad, but you can't have everything.

"Kyle Shanahan should've kicked off in overtime"

In normal circumstances, I see some merit to this – it's useful as an offense to know what you have to get, and what you're up against – but I think to simply say that Kyle made the wrong decision or didn't understand the rules or ignored the analytics or whatever other form of this argument you might make is to ignore something that stats and rules don't quantify – momentum. At the coin toss for overtime, the defense had just been on the field for 12 plays, largely getting dragged up and down the field, and looked gassed and not the least bit confounded by what was happening in front of them. To me, Shanahan's call to take the ball was about two things – getting his defense some rest and giving them a clear idea of what they needed to do when Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes got the ball. There are many things you can criticize about Shanahan and his decision-making, and believe me, I'll get to it, but I don't think this is one. If KC takes the ball, I think Mahomes goes down and scores, and we're probably having this discussion the other way (although, possibly, less of one about Wilks…)

"Kyle blew the game"

My final argument to dissect is one I actually – hang on to your hats – agree with. Let me explain why. I do still firmly believe that Wilks carries the can for the defense's collapse when it matters – being unable to stop the read option, playing coverage way too soft on the last two drives, allowing easy red zone access for Mahomes, et al – but when I look at it realistically, was 22 points going to be enough to beat the Chiefs? Probably not.

I want to be very clear at this point that in a black-and-white world, I'm aiming for a shade of grey. I don't want Shanahan fired. I don't see how that helps anyone. The roster is set up to play his scheme, with his coaching staff. There are no better alternatives out there, and one of them certainly isn't Bill Belichick, whose time for coaching is way over the horizon, notwithstanding the complete organizational shakeup it would require. That said, the game did cause me to lose a hell of a lot of faith in coach Kyle, and if you're asking yourself why, it's very simple – so simple, in fact, I can boil it down to one sentence.

It boggles my mind that the same mind that comes up with one of the best trick plays in Super Bowl history to spring a touchdown is the same mind that contrives to give the NFL Offensive Player of the Year two touches in the third quarter. I hear all the arguments about missed assignments in pass blocking, the occasional poor decision from 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy, and some of the receivers being blanketed in coverage, but let the record show that in the biggest game of the season, with a lead, Shanahan gave the Offensive Player of the Year the ball twice. I can't understand that to this very moment, writing this sentence. How does that happen?

The 49ers have always been a team built to run first to set up easier play-action shots. They barely managed that in the whole game. Purdy often found himself dropping straight from the pocket, and, with a run threat seemingly absent, the already budget pass protection was exploited by an excellent Chiefs defensive line, schemed by one of the best Defensive Coordinators of all time in Steve Spagnuolo, and ultimately resulted in far too many clock-killing three-and-outs in the second half. Add on the usual baffling two-minute drill playcalling and, if you're feeling really harsh, a strange decision not to go for the jugular in overtime, and yeah, I get how you'd come to that conclusion.

There are a myriad of reasons why the 49ers lost. Some of them are defensive, some offensive, and some, particularly in the case of the punt fumble, are sheer bad luck. But the buck stops with the head coach and his speciality, the offense. And for anyone who sees that as harsh, remind yourself that Shanahan himself will likely feel he didn't score enough points to win the game.

But what now?

As I said, I don't want Kyle fired. I want a new defensive coordinator (and once again, it's not going to be Bill Belichick, sorry) with an aggressive attitude installed. I want us to attack teams on defense, and go for the throat on offense. Too often, this team plays with fear of an opponent rather than understanding that they're one of the best teams in the league. Both the Cowboys and Eagles games this year showed signs of that changing, only for us to regress slightly in the biggest game of all. While I'm hugely critical of Kyle and his playcalling in the Super Bowl, it shouldn't escape anyone's notice that the man opposite him last Sunday was once run out on a rail in Philadelphia with the same big-game record – and that man now holds three championships in five years and a place as one of the greatest coaches of all time. It's not all Mahomes either – as with most things, and as we know from the lazy narratives surrounding Brock Purdy, success comes from the successful marrying of coach and offensive scheme.

The 49ers are almost there. They've just got to make a base camp and go again. Find a way to pay Brandon Aiyuk, pull your usual stunts in the draft and free agency, and let's begin the climb again. I've followed this team through Nolan, Singletary, Tomsula, Kelly, and thousands of other terrible moments. I've traveled thousands of miles to watch Blaine Gabbert start (and somehow win!) at quarterback. This hurts, but it's going to make the moment we're finally atop the mountain better. So please don't abandon the bandwagon now when we can see the top.
  • Written by:
    UK Niner and writer, following scores since 1998, watching games since 2005. Two visits to SF (2015 and 2017) and counting. Claim to fame: saw Blaine Gabbert win a game as a starting quarterback.
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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