Yesterday's Super Bowl is an event that will stay with Niner fans for a long, long time, a black cloud hanging over our heads, a punch to the gut that left many of us feeling almost physically ill. The team absolutely controlled the game for the first 45-plus minutes, at which point it had a 10-point lead. The majority of the fourth quarter, however, was a nightmare that just kept getting worse, the end result being the team's second Super Bowl loss in its last two appearances and Kyle Shanahan's second loss after having a late lead in the past four years. One can not begin to imagine how Kyle feels today, the thousands of hours dedicated to the ultimate goal, the Lombardi Trophy, all snatched away in the blink of an eye. I, like most fans, was left with the huge question of what exactly happened to so suddenly and decisively snatch what seemed like a certain victory away? After some reflection, some game film review (which was truly painful), and some discussion with others who know a bit about the game, I have some thoughts. The short answer is this: There was a confluence of events that combined to completely shift things in a way that almost feels like it was inevitable.

The two things that seem to dominate most people's thinking today are that either Garoppolo's poor play or Shanahan's poor play-calling was the reason that things went sideways. Both of these men certainly had an impact last night, first in a positive way and then in a negative one. Jimmy had a solid night, maybe even a good one, for the first three quarters and change. He threw one pick, an ill-advised throw when he was being sacked, which looked like a badly shanked punt that wound up a gift for Bashaud Breeland (who was a thorn in the Niners' side all night). Aside from that, though, Jimmy played the type of game that would have resulted in a win - until that last, nightmarish stretch. He missed reads, not seeing Kittle open on multiple occasions and trying to force the ball into coverage instead. He was rattled by the pass rush, which, admittedly, was much improved during that stretch. This was due to Steve Spagnolo throwing caution to the wind and sending 5 and 6 defenders to rush the quarterback. There are routes designed to beat blitzes, hot reads and quick throws to areas vacated by these players, and on some occasions Jimmy did not make those throws. On others, Chris Jones stuck a hand up and knocked the passes down, which goes to Kyle's playcalling, which I will discuss below. Jimmy also missed throws, in particular the third down throw to Emmanuel Sanders, who was had gotten behind the defense and was wide open for a touchdown. Garoppolo, who had a clean pocket, simply missed the throw. Yes, some of this falls on our quarterback. Jimmy needs to learn from this, to develop more as a quarterback, and know where to go with the football in every situation. This is something that I hope he continues to develop this offseason, because for the team to hoist the Lombardi, he will almost certainly have to improve in these tight moments.

Kyle Shanahan made his share of head-scratching decisions as well. I will not go into the end of the first half, which left me frustrated and more than a little unhappy. This was the Super Bowl, the big one, and not taking every opportunity to try to score against a team like the Chiefs just strikes me as a mistake. Anyway, I want to focus on the playcalling in the second half, and in particular in the last 12 or so minutes. The 49ers had been gashing the Chiefs with runs to the edge, with jet sweeps to Deebo Samuel, with play action to Kyle Juszczyk, who I felt was the team's MVP last night. They got away from all of this during that period of time. In fact, Deebo was not part of the offense for almost all of the second half. They ran between the tackles. They put Garoppolo in shotgun and had him stay in the pocket. The dynamic, exciting, aggressive offense vanished, and the results were that the offense did little. I don't know if Shanahan called a more conservative game, if he was trying to protect the lead, if he was thinking about what happened in the Falcons/Pats Super Bowl. He may not have been thinking about any of those things. He may have been calling an aggressive game that I could not see - but it certainly didn't feel that way.

The third factor in this loss, I believe, was the defense. For three quarters and a couple of minutes, the defense played like the legendary unit we all felt them to be. They held the Chiefs' juggernaut to 10 points. They picked off Mahomes twice, after he had gone pretty much his entire postseason career without throwing even one interception. They had him rattled, scared, making awful throws, missing reads and receivers. The defensive backs were punishing the Chiefs receivers, particularly Tyreek Hill, who was hammered by Tartt and Ward on multiple instances. And then - it changed. Whether it was the scheme, blown coverages, or a combination of the two, the defense allowed the Chiefs to hit on big plays. Everyone saw the 3rd and 15 throw to Hill, who got behind the corners which put Jimmie Ward in the position of having to roll from his center field safety spot to try to cover him. Hill was running full speed, and Ward could only try to keep him from getting behind him as he flowed. He had no chance. Hill ran a post-corner, and when Ward flipped his hips, Hill broke to the outside and there was no way that he could stay with the route. It was fortunate that the play did not go for a touchdown. The second significant play was the long throw to Watkins. Sherman was in a trail position, which indicated help over the top, which came late, and Mahomes made the relatively easy throw. I believe that both of these were not scheme issues, but rather blown coverages. In addition to these plays, the 49ers simply did not get pressure on Mahomes. That issue is part of another component of this situation, that of the officiating.

I do not like to gripe about officiating (ok, I actually do in the moment, but after the game I try not to), but I do need to comment on it regarding the outcome of the game. The Chiefs were not called for a single hold, to my knowledge. They were penalized 4 times for 24 yards in the game. In looking at the film, however, it is clear that the Chiefs' approach was to hold the 49ers' pass rushers until a call was made. That never happened. There were multiple instances where the left defensive end (usually Dee Ford or Arik Armstead) was held while Mahomes rolled right. On two occasions, he completed a pass for a first down; on a third, he ran for the first down. How do I know that the defenders were held? Because they could not even turn around to pursue - the back of their jerseys was all that I could see as the play developed. Beyond this, Bosa and Buckner pretty much always had an arm around their necks or torsos, without any flag being thrown. This was not the only issue, however. Jimmy took a Sorensen helmet to his own, leaving him holding his own head as he lay on the ground, with no flag. He took an arm and hand to the face, I believe by Chris Jones, with no flag. He ran out of bounds on a third down play (in which there was an uncalled jump offsides) and was shoved to the ground. No flag. The only significant flags in the game were on Tarvarius Moore (for an obvious interference) and on Kittle at the end of the first half for a less-obvious push off. Certainly, the lack of calls against the Chiefs' offensive line impacted the end of the game.

Finally, there is what I believe was the biggest reason for the swing that wound up leaving the Niners as also-rans, which occurred at the very start of this sequence. It actually followed what should have been the biggest play of the game, Moore's interception of Mahomes. It felt like a back breaker. It really did. Apparently, Moore felt the same way, because he ran to the end zone, followed by the entire defense, and posed. Posed. In the Super Bowl. Against the best quarterback in the league. Yes, the Niners are a young team. Yes, they are excitable, and play with emotion and exuberance. However, this act served two purposes: First, it showed that the Niners felt that they had the game won. They celebrated like the confetti was dropping, and continued that on the sidelines. The Chiefs absolutely saw this all transpire. I have to think that they felt pure, unadulterated rage. The Niners relaxed. and the Chiefs found another gear. The Niners ran five plays, gaining one first down (this marked the end of their serious use of the run game), and the dam broke. I am not baming Moore for this - I am simply noting that the team, at that moment, made two huge mistakes. First, they lost their edge, the emotion that drove them to the 10-point lead that they held at the time. Second, they lit a fire under their opponent. Momentum swung, and in the game of football, momentum, that edge, is a very real and important thing. Momentum is what carried an inferior team in the Giants to a victory over a much stronger Patriots team. It is what led the Patriots to an incredible comeback against the Falcons. And it is what propelled the Chiefs to 14 points and a win last night (I don't consider the Williams touchdown because that was a result of desperate play by the Niners to try to somehow get the ball back). The Niners let go of the rope, and the Chiefs grabbed it and pulled hard. The rest was almost certain to follow.

The offseason will be interesting, and challenging, for this team. There are a number of players whose contracts are up. Do they re-sign Armstead? Ward? Moseley? Thomas? There are numerous others. I hesitate to endorse Armstead because while he had an excellent season, he simply refused to hold the edge yesterday, even when he wasn't held. He crashed repeatedly, allowing Mahomes to roll out easily. I see Ward as important, as he has been a stalwart all season, but he will be expensive. I think Moseley is an absolute necessity. I think Thomas should be allowed to walk. But those are all just my thoughts. I'm just some idiot with a keyboard, and have no access to the internal machinations of the franchise. I do trust in this organization, which is something that feels great to say. I believe that they will learn and grow from this experience, and that next year will be another step in the evolution of what I see as a potential dynasty in the making. Only time will tell.

Today hurts. It hurts a lot. I'm sure it hurts the players and members of the organization even more. But we can not lost sight of the fact that this team, which no one picked to make noise in the playoffs, and most didn't even expect to make the playoffs at all, was that close to winning the Super Bowl. That is something to feel good about.
  • Written by:
    Matt Mani is a lifelong Bay Area resident, having benefitted from attending every Niner home game from 1973 to 1998. Along the way, he developed a deep love of the game and for the team. He is a practicing attorney in Marin County and, aside from pulling hard for the Niners, Warriors and GIants, writes in his spare time. He is father to three sons who all bleed red and gold. He somehow convinced the editors at 49ers Webzone to give him a chance to prove himself as a content provider, which has fulfilled one of his life's dreams.