Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports


The 49ers’ Serendipity Season

Jan 31, 2020 at 1:06 PM


Before this year's playoffs began, four teams presented mega-match-up problems for the 49ers: the Saints and Seahawks in the NFC, and the Ravens and Chiefs in the AFC. Not that the Niners could not have vanquished any of these contenders – in fact they did beat the Saints and Seahawks during the regular season – just that these squads, for specific reasons which many of the faithful already understand, afforded the most formidable obstacles. Now, only the Chiefs remain, and the 49ers will have to defeat them themselves.

Nearly every championship team benefits from some luck along the way, especially the non-juggernaut versions. Even the Chiefs, perhaps a bona-fide juggernaut, needed some assistance, and vaulted into the first-round bye when the Dolphins upset the Patriots in the last week of the season. Then, of course, the Ravens fell to the mighty Titans (a team which many, myself included, mistakenly excluded, pre-playoffs, as a potential Niner-killer). But the Chiefs did not need a surfeit of luck to beat either the Texans or the Titans, although the home-field advantage did help. Nor will they need much luck to beat the 49ers. The Chiefs are objectively the better team, and were initially installed, rightfully, as favorites.

But that does not mean that the 49ers cannot beat them. In the overkill coverage surging into the Super Bowl, folks will continue to analyze Kyle Shanahan's play calling, his offensive play design, and his tidy boyish grin. However, a less-noted tendency of Kyle's has brought the Niners tantalizingly near the pinnacle of pro football success: his studied inclination, as the Niners have bulldozed through the playoffs, to minimize bad luck. No one can eliminate bad fortune completely, if it wasn't for bad luck I'd have no luck at all, the best laid plans of mice and men, etc. And, admittedly, many coaches, adhering to the old-school adage that says when you throw the ball, three things can happen and two of them are bad (incompletions and interceptions), would run the dang ball every down if they could get away with it.

However, Shanahan during the playoffs did not become a run-run-run maniac merely because that's the way his daddy did it, but from necessity. Jimmy Garoppolo, still a neophyte quarterback in terms of actual game experience, has a propensity to throw into traffic and to take sacks (yet another bad thing that can happen when you pass) instead of throwing the ball away. Ironically, Shanahan's very skill as a play designer may itself have contributed to his still-learning quarterback's woes. Shanahan has a variety of ways (motion, misdirection, fakes, semi-rollouts, player-position swapping) to influence individual defenders into slightly (mis)adjusting their coverages, and Garoppolo throughout his 49er tenure has benefitted from these subtly altered defensive spaces into which he may sling the football. Defenses, as they often do, (re)adjust and a savvy player, such as the great Vikings linebacker Eric "don't call me Eddie" Kendricks, can ignore a play-action fake to Raheem Mostert, drop into coverage, and wait for Jimmy G to toss him a pick, as, indeed, happened in the recent playoff game. Jimmy has, perhaps, grown too accustomed to the vacated spaces created by his coach.

Invariably, the best coaches, and players, counter-adjust, and you can bet the Niners have since sought to curtail Jimmy's bad habits, both in practice and the film room. And, though Jimmy G may well hurl a few more passes downfield against the Chiefs, don't expect him to become a full-time mad bomber. Furthermore, within the context of Shanahan's risk-mitigation strategy, each play will be a calculated risk. Remember, with the bye Shanahan had two full weeks to plot out his playoff game plans, and, with the propitious way the first two contests have unfolded for the Niners, their offensive savant has yet to show his full hand of wild-cards. Nor do these stashed-away up-his-sleeve plays necessarily mean risky ones. If the 49ers, as consensus has it, need to open up their offense to beat the Chiefs, the Prospectors can do so prudently.

For instance, our canny coach might include low-risk gambits such as shovel passes, flat passes to the backs, play-action rollouts, quarterback draws, end-around screens, and other assorted stratagems. At this point in the season, he might as well play every joker in his deck. He will. Some might call these "trick" plays, but Shanahan will smoothly shuffle them into drive sequences, setting them up with previous calls and correspondingly using them to set up subsequent calls. And he will have the blocking angles, the timing and the field position for when to use them figured out. Likewise, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh no doubt has some coverages, personnel groupings, and blitz patterns that he has not lately used. He, too, will weigh the probabilities of success against the potential risks, while balancing in-game situations.

Also, recently Shanahan has underused Matt Breida, partly because of that back's late-season fumblitis. But, because of the injury to Tevin Coleman (update:now cleared to go), whom Shanahan seems to trust more for his ball security and ability to take what the defense gives him, the 49ers may use Matt more against KC. This, in turn, might result in a boon-in-disguise if the fleet-footed Breida breaks a big play. So I am not saying that Shanahan, for all his gifts, can outwit fortune. Far from it. In fact, I'm saying the opposite. And I realize the danger of holding those cards too close to his vest, to the point of playing too conservatively, and white-knuckling his team into bad situations. But I am saying that the Niners will need every minuscule edge they can dredge up, and that includes Kyle Shanahan playing the odds in the Prospectors' favor against one of the most dynamic teams and greatest coaches in NFL history.

Finally, win or lose the Super Bowl, we the faithful in future years may very well remember this 49er football year as a kismet season. True, the team has endured both good and bad luck. But many of the injured returned in time for the playoffs, in part because their coach, again, risked the possibility of regular-season losses by not bringing the wounded back too early. In the nick of time, the early-season defensive swagger has returned. After experiments and injury-driven tests of personnel groupings, Shanahan seems to have settled on a trusted core batch to dominate the snap counts. And, as mentioned earlier, the NFC playoffs have fallen the way the Niners might have hoped.

Only in retrospect will we know whether we will someday regard this year's version of the Red-and-Gold as one-year wonders or as the beginning of a long run of playoff contention. In hindsight, we can notice that many of the teams that came later to be regarded as dynasties won at least one big game, against the odds, over a superior ballclub. These games usually occur early in these great teams' playoff runs, marked often by a signature play which includes an element of good fortune mixed with skill. In the case of The Belichick/Brady Patriots, recall the tuck-rule game. In the case of the Walsh 49ers, recall "the catch," Montana to Clark, but also Dan Bunz's goal-line tackle in the Super Bowl. Dre Greenlaw deserves full credit for this year's parallel to the Bunz play in the regular-season finale against the Seahawks. But also, those inches, those oh-so-precious inches that kept the ball in Hollister's hands from touching that goal line, did involve an element of luck, and made the 49ers' season even as it marred the magnificent Seahawks' 2019 campaign.

As for "the catch," nothing in 49ers' future lore may ever match it. But, decades hence, our generation of the faithful may look back on George Kittle's improbable rumble down the sideline against the Saints as our signature play. The 49ers in that game, coming on the heels of the loss to the Ravens, showed the world that this iteration of the 49ers could, indeed, play with the big boys. Yes, Kittle fought off fourth down, the clock, a face-mask penalty, and fate. Kudos to his effort. Yet, yet again, the Saints, from their point of view, fell victim once more to buzzard luck when 49er linebacker Fred Warner missed a tackle on the game's penultimate drive, allowing the Saints to score early, leaving the Niners enough time to make the subsequent Kittle play even possible.

Will this serendipitous season culminate in a Super Bowl victory or will it crash in a rash of penalties, turnovers, missed assignments, and miscellaneous mistakes? If the latter, that would go against the season trend of the 49ers making fewer mistakes. Again, any team can blunder into a run of bad bounces, but that includes Kansas City, too. The praise for Kyle Shanahan's offensive creativity often overshadows his old-school attention to traditional football details. Against a team with overwhelming offensive talent and an improving defense, these fundamentals can make the difference for the 49ers.

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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