San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan is unquestionably the best offensive coach in the NFL. He’s got a list of acolytes that are also head coaches and other kinds of offensive play-callers that seems to paper half the league.
But right now, none of that matters. Because for the third time in a Super Bowl, Shanahan as either the offensive coordinator or head coach has blown a lead of at least 10 points.
That’s the toughest thing about getting to that many high-profile games — if you keep losing them, that’s the only way people will define you. And for Shanahan, it’s now losing Super Bowl LI as the Atlanta Falcons’ offensive coordinator, infamously blowing that 28-3 lead, and two Super Bowls (LVI and LVIII) in which he had 10 points on the Chiefs and couldn’t come through. Shanahan is also on the losing side of the only two overtime Super Bowls — LI and this one.
Sometimes, history really sucks.
Shanahan is hardly the only coach to face this crucible. Tom Landry couldn’t get past the Vince Lombardi Packers or Blanton Collier’s Cleveland Browns in the back half of the 1960s. John Madden’s Oakland Raiders went to three straight conference championships and lost them all to the eventual Super Bowl winner from 1973 to 1975. And the list of teams that had to take a back seat to Bill Belichick when Belichick was winning six Super Bowls with the New England Patriots was … well, rather long.
If you get over the hump eventually, the narrative goes away. It did for Landry and for Madden when they won their own Super Bowls. But in Shanahan’s case, we’re still left wanting when it comes to the biggest game, and that will invariably — and not unfairly — complicate his legacy over time as it does now.
Until he is able to change it.
This time around, it seemed like Shanahan had the guys to get it done. Brock Purdy had been the near-perfect distiller of his offense in ways that no other quarterback had been. Purdy’s targets are as talented as any in the league, and Steve Wilks’ defense completely dominated the Chiefs in this game … until they didn’t on the last drive. Patrick Mahomes threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to Mecole Hardman with three seconds left in the first overtime period, and the Chiefs won 25-22.
Belichick’s Patriots and now the Chiefs are the only teams in the new millennium to repeat as Super Bowl champions. With three championships in five years, they’re the new dynasty, and Mahomes is the unkillable force.
So, it’s Shanahan who’s on the wrong side of history and dynasty.
Shanahan’s bona fides are undeniable. No offensive play caller and play designer is better at displacing defenses, but all that statement will get now is, “Well, if he’s so great, why can’t he maintain it when it matters?”
And that’s a fair, if cruel, question.
As far as what Shanahan can do to erase that narrative? It might be up to making the Super Bowl in a year when the Chiefs somehow miss it. Or, to hope (quite possibly in vain) that things will turn his way if he has to face this juggernaut once again.
Right now, there’s only the pain of not only falling short, but falling short in the same way, over and over, in a Sisyphean struggle to roll that impossibly heavy boulder up the hill, feeling like you might be on the wrong end of the wrath of the gods.