Kyle Shanahan learned a lot from the 28-3 debacle in Super Bowl LI

Mike Florio

Kyle Shanahan returns to the Super Bowl for the first time in three years, and he already has been asked about what happened the last time he was there.

Shanahan, then the offensive coordinator of the Falcons, had a 28-3 lead over the Patriots in the third quarter. The Patriots roared back, tied the game, and won it in overtime.

In the aftermath of the loss (which was followed by Shanahan leaving to become head coach of the 49ers), Shanahan received sharp criticism for the decisions made when the Falcons led by eight and, thanks to a 27-yard catch by receiver Julio Jones that put the Falcons on the New England 22 with 4:40 to play, appeared to be in position to ice the game. A run on first down lost a yard, an attempted pass on second down resulted in a sack that pushed the ball back to the 35. A holding penalty then moved the ball to the 45. On third and 33, a short pass was incomplete, the Falcons punted, the Patriots scored a touchdown and a two-point conversion to force overtime, and that was that.

“The days after were real tough,” Shanahan told reporters on Monday regarding the outcome. “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, I think, 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 ran it, we would’ve won, I know that wasn’t the case. I know what went into that game and all the stuff that happened, so that stuff didn’t bother me. You’ve got to deal with that and listen to other people, but it was nice to be able to move on and move out here and just keep working. I’m glad I’m going to get the chance to go back.”

He’s right. The defense, not the offense, blew the 25-point lead. The offense didn’t even have a chance to try to win the game in overtime, thanks to the unfair procedure that allows a team to win the coin toss, drive down the field, score a touchdown, and end the game.

Still, a lot of the blame was directed at Shanahan, ignoring the fact that coach Dan Quinn could have, on second down, overruled the proposed pass play on second and 11. (The quarterback also has the ability, whether authorized or not, to say, “Screw this. I’m calling a running play.”)

Shanahan explained the reasoning behind not calling a run on second and 11.

“We haven’t converted a third down, really the entire second half, I think we were averaging one yard a carry rushing,” Shanahan said. “So, when you do that, the formula to keep giving the ball back to someone is to go run-run-pass. You’re going to [face] a third-and-seven at the best every single time. If you’re not converting third downs, that makes it tough. We did mix it up a little bit. I think we actually ran it more in the second half than we did in the first half. . . . Finally they got it within a score, we got it back and got pretty aggressive to get it down there [to the 22]. It was a second-and-[11] . . . tried to get a play to Julio. They played a different coverage, didn’t get the call I wanted so I didn’t like the call. I was hoping we could just get rid of it, but they had a pretty good rush and got a sack. Once that happened, I knew we had to throw because now we were out of field goal range. Threw it the next down to [Mohamed] Sanu . . . but they called a holding call on our left tackle [Jake Matthews] so that put us way back and we had to throw again . . . and we missed it. I wish I didn’t call that play on second-and-11 that led to that sack.”

Again, Quinn could have overruled it. Matt Ryan could have audibled out of it. Everyone involved apparently thought the play was going to work, until it didn’t.

The Patriots deserve a little credit on that one, for rolling out a different coverage that stymied the play. Also, the Patriots’ mystique may have caused the Falcons to press for a touchdown, due to concerns that against Bill Belichick and Tom Brady an 11-point lead with three minutes to play wouldn’t be as safe as it would have been against other teams.

Regardless, Shanahan learned a lesson that day. One that will serve him well for the rest of his coaching career.

“I promise you when we’re way up in the fourth quarter on Green Bay, I know what 28 minus three is,” Shanahan said. “I know a 25-point lead in the fourth quarter isn’t enough. We only had a 14-point lead with eight minutes to go versus Green Bay. I can promise you that, I think I feel from experience like the game is tied and that we don’t have a two-score lead. I think that’s the stuff that helps you because sometimes I think people can tend to relax.”

Shanahan won’t be relaxing at any point during Super Bowl LIV, no matter how big of a lead the 49ers may build. Which is smart to do, given that the Chiefs erased a 24-point deficit against the Texans and a 10-point margin against the Titans.