Will Shanahan find retribution in this Super Bowl?
MIAMI — Our major sporting events are both a blessing and a curse. We choose to remember the victories. We can’t forget the losses.
For Kyle Shanahan, one defeat in particular stands out. So does one play.
Shanahan is head coach of the 49ers, who on Sunday play the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV. An achievement. An obstacle. A reminder.
Three years ago, in Super Bowl LI, Shanahan was the offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons, who, exploiting Shanahan’s game plan and the skills of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, built a 28-3 lead over the Patriots.
No team ever had lost a Super Bowl with a lead that large, until that one. No Super Bowl ever had gone into overtime, until that one.
The Patriots won, 34-28.
Yes, it was the Falcons’ defense that gave up all those points, but it was the Falcons’ offense, Shanahan’s offense under head coach Dan Quinn, that failed to add any points after constructing the lead.
The result left critics complaining. The Falcons led by more than three touchdowns over the Patriots, which itself is remarkable, and they got beat, which in the situation was unprecedented.
And for a young assistant coach — OK, a coordinator — agonizing. But eventually instructional. Nothing is certain in sports except uncertainty. Other than humility.
Your brilliant plans that seem perfect on the chalkboard or the iPad can be stuffed back in a single, crushing moment. One play you’re en route to a championship, the next you’re flat on your ego.
Shanahan insisted the other day that he doesn’t think any longer about what happened in the second half of that Super Bowl. Maybe because it was past the point of no return. One can only beat himself up so much.
“You do it every second,” he said the other day about the way he tortured himself after the defeat. “The days after were real tough. Losing a Super Bowl is extremely tough for everybody, especially when you lose one when you have a 28-3 lead.
“The way it came down on me personally, I didn't react to that, the way people would expect, because there were definitely parts in that Super Bowl that I would love to have back and stuff I was very hard on myself, but the whole narrative of if I would've just run it, we would've won — I know that wasn’t the case."
We’ll review the details, but other than Olympic regattas or thoroughbred racing — right, Maximum Security — would-haves and could-haves become irrelevant.
Which is why the upcoming Super Bowl is so important for Shanahan, not to mention the 49ers. It is the chance for retribution. With a San Francisco win, that memorable Atlanta collapse against the Patriots will be shoved back to the footnotes.
Kyle Shanahan will be the guy who won the sixth Super Bowl for the Niners rather than then the guy who lost the only Super Bowl for the Falcons.
But until then, as it was the other day in one of the Super Bowl interview sessions, Shanahan will be asked the how and why of the second half against New England.
“We couldn’t get Tom Brady off the field,” he observed about the Patriots' quarterback. And they couldn’t keep the Atlanta offense on the field, making it easier for Brady and the Pats.
There was that third-down pass attempt by Ryan, the Falcons' quarterback, midway through the fourth quarter on which Ryan was sacked and lost a fumble.
So critical, but to Shanahan not as critical as what would come next. Atlanta had the ball on the Patriots 33 with fewer than five minutes remaining.
Had the Falcons run three straight plays, the Pats would have needed to use their timeouts, and Atlanta at worst would have kicked a field goal for an 11-point lead.
After losing a yard on a first-down run, however, Atlanta went to the air. Or tried to. On second and 11, Shanahan called for a pass play he said he still regrets.
“They played a different coverage, didn't get the call I wanted, so I didn't like the call," Shanahan explained. “I was hoping we could just get rid of it, but they had a pretty good rush and got a sack.”
Which led to another loss, taking the Falcons out of field goal range. Backed up to the 35, Shanahan called for a pass. A 9-yard gain was wiped out by a holding penalty. An incompletion on third down led to a punt from the 45. That led to the Pats scoring the tying touchdown.
“I wish I didn't call that play on second-and-11 that led to that sack," said Shanahan.
For sure, he won’t call it again. We live and learn. And sometimes lose.