Here’s the headline if Kyle Shanahan goes with a run-heavy plan in the fourth quarter and the Atlanta Falcons lost Super Bowl LI that way: “Shanahan blows Super Bowl by going into a conservative shell, allowing the great Tom Brady and Bill Belichick to come back. What was he thinking?”
Shanahan made some mistakes, clearly. Though, some of the criticism is clearly results-based. We’ve seen the coaches film by now; if Devonta Freeman blocks Dont’a Hightower even a little on that third-and-1, Matt Ryan throws a long, win-sealing pass instead of getting strip-sacked. And we never hear about Shanahan being too aggressive. But this is life for an NFL play-caller. Nobody will talk about the great plan Shanahan had going into the game (which he did).
When the Falcons blew a 28-3 lead and lost the Super Bowl to the New England Patriots, everything rightfully examined after the fact. And the easiest second-guess is Shanahan calling pass plays when, in hindsight, the Falcons just needed to run to win. We’ll associate Seattle Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell with Super Bowl XLIX, and Shanahan with Super Bowl LI.
But you have to at least step back and accept Shanahan’s mindset. The Falcons were against the greatest coach-quarterback duo in NFL history. We’ve seen so many coaches lose because they became too conservative. Shanahan didn’t want to let his foot off the gas.
On some level, even with the mistakes in judgment, that’s understandable.
“It’s human nature when you get in big moments like that to lock up, to hesitate, to try to take the easy way out and make sure you don’t get blamed,” Shanahan said. “That’s not something I wasn’t going to do and people on our team weren’t going to do.
“We played that game how we played the entire year. I called plays in that game the way I have the entire year. Doesn’t mean I’m always right. Doesn’t mean they’re always going to work. … But I always do what I believe is right with our coaching staff and the players and then you live with the consequences.”
That doesn’t mean it’s easy. The Falcons suffered what is arguably the worst loss in American professional sports history (at least the 1986 Boston Red Sox still had Game 7 to play after blowing Game 6 in the 10th inning) and that will never leave the players or coaches. For someone like Shanahan, who has been criticized heavily since Sunday, it has to be an extra burden.
Think about it this way: As Shanahan was introduced as San Francisco 49ers head coach, one of the biggest moments of his career to this point, he had to answer questions about his role in a Super Bowl he and the Falcons just lost. He said the Super Bowl loss is “as hard as anything I’ve gone through.”
“Jed [York, 49ers owner] told me to take my time and he allowed me to take a day-and-a-half before I cameg out here,” Shanahan said. “I was definitely grieving and I probably will for a while.”
There was a report from Zach Klein of WSB in Atlanta that Shanahan told people at the team hotel after the game, “I blew it.”
“I don’t know if I used those exact words, but that sounds about how I talk,” Shanahan said Thursday. “When you’re the coordinator of an offense or the head coach of a team, you’re responsible for what happens out there. If a play doesn’t go right, if a player misses something, that starts with the offensive coordinator. I did believe we had a very good chance to win that game, especially at the end, and we didn’t get it done. When you use the the words ‘I blew it,’ I don’t look at it that way. I believe we missed an opportunity.”
This isn’t the best way to start a head-coaching career. And it’s easy to be critical of his calls. Shanahan said he will be critical of himself. But he understands why he called the plays he did.
“Yeah it’s going to be hard living with that loss,” Shanahan said. “And every play that didn’t work, I regret, as always. But I can deal with it. I can look at myself in the mirror and know I did what I thought was right at the time. I didn’t change because of the circumstance. I did what I thought was right.
“I remember every single play and I’ll go over those for the rest of my life. That’s kind of the life we live as coaches.”
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