Chris Biderman: Let's have a nuanced conversation about who's to blame for the 49ers' Super Bowl loss
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Chris Biderman: Let's have a nuanced conversation about who's to blame for the 49ers' Super Bowl loss

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SANTA CLARA, Calf. - The Super Bowl is a unique game with stakes at their highest. Legacies can be solidified with wins and reputations can be sullied by losses.

There's very little room for anything in between.

That's the basis for the analysis when we start to look at these games. But the truth is, Kyle Shanahan isn't any worse a coach after Sunday's devastating Super Bowl loss to the Chiefs than he was after the 49ers beat down the Packers in the NFC title game. And Andy Reid isn't a better coach than he was heading into Super Bowl week in South Florida.

But we look at those two offensive geniuses differently now that we have a result to judge them by. Shanahan's two Super Bowl appearances are marred by the scoring totals in the fourth quarters and overtime, where the 49ers this year and Falcons in the 2017 Super Bowl combined to get outscored 46-0.

That's going to be a major sticking point when discussing Shanahan, whether it's all his fault or not. The same was true with Reid, who won 207 games before finally getting his elusive Lombardi Trophy (Shanahan has 23 wins as a head coach). Reid's reputation as a poor game manager in crucial situations accompanied him his entire career to this point. That might now be shifting to Shanahan.

But is that entirely fair? Let's consider the thought process of how to evaluate Shanahan's performance from Sunday night in Miami, and try to diagnose what went wrong that kept the 49ers from bringing their sixth championship back to Northern California.

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Shanahan is getting widely panned for not taking a timeout when the Chiefs punted with 1:08 remaining in the second quarter. He could have burned the first of three timeouts with some 1:46 remaining to give the 49ers a chance at points before the half, rather than go to the locker room tied at 10.

The decision not to use a timeout signaled San Francisco would sit on the ball and be happy with the tie knowing it was receiving the second-half kickoff.

The logic behind Shanahan being wrong here is sound. The 49ers went 80 yards on just seven plays for a touchdown their previous series. And clearly points are always at a premium against Patrick Mahomes, who can score at light speed.

But it was evident Shanahan was preparing for the worst-case scenario by not taking a timeout, which is why it made sense, even if John Lynch was signaling otherwise from a luxury suite.

Remember, Kansas City nearly downed the punt at the 1-yard line. Demarcus Robinson, after the punt bounced, was in perfect position to field the tap from Byron Pringle right at the 1, but Pringle's attempt didn't get out of the end zone, which was a lucky break for San Francisco.

If the ball had been downed at the 1, and Shanahan burned his first timeout, there's a strong chance the Chiefs, who had all three timeouts, would have gotten the ball back at midfield with well over a minute left because the 49ers would have to run the ball three times to avoid disaster at their own end of the field (like a safety or interception) just two possessions after Jimmy Garoppolo's brutal pick to Bashaud Breeland.

As for running the ball on the first two plays of that drive, San Francisco averaged 7.3 yards per carry in the first half, and against a defense thinking pass, like the Packers did throughout the NFC title game, a run could have popped just as easily as a throw without the risk of interception.

But it still nearly played out in the 49ers' favor.

Because a screen pass to Jeff Wilson Jr. popped for 20 yards, the 49ers were in business and could be aggressive near midfield. Then Shanahan dialed up a long pass to George Kittle, which would have given San Francisco a shot at scoring from the 8-yard line with a timeout available.

Kittle was called for a controversial pass interference penalty taking away a field goal, at minimum, which had a great impact on the outcome. Ultimately, it wasn't nearly as bad as giving the Chiefs a chance to score before halftime.

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Garoppolo was playing mostly well during the first three quarters. He completed 17 of 20 for 183 yards with a touchdown and an interception. In the third quarter alone, he recorded 94 yards while completing 8 of 9.

The interception came as he was hit. It appeared as though he was trying to find Deebo Samuel but the impact from Mike Pennel took the velocity away from the throw. Garoppolo should have either eaten it or tried throwing it away after Chris Jones brought pressure.

And on the offensive pass interference to Kittle, Garoppolo had Emmanuel Sanders past his defender for a wide open touchdown deep down the left sideline. Targeting your All-Pro tight end with a perfect deep toss that he caught isn't a terrible decision, but obviously a touchdown to Sanders would have been enormous.

Garoppolo wasn't good in the fourth quarter, but neither was anyone else on the offense. Joe Staley and Sanders had untimely false starts (though they still got a first down after Sanders'). There weren't answers against the blitz as the Chiefs started to bring six pass rushers on long throwing situations, which was more than San Francisco could block.

Garoppolo had a bad two-play sequence on the drive inside the 2-minute warning with a chance to win it.

He nearly threw a pick over the middle and then followed it up by missing an open Sanders for a touchdown on a throw he made to the veteran twice in key December wins: against the Saints for a 75-yard touchdown and late in the victory over the Rams to convert a third-and-16.

Garoppolo will think about that throw for a long time. He finished the fourth quarter just 3 of 11 for 36 yards and the interception to Kendall Fuller after the game was decided.

Does it mean the 49ers need to move on and find a new quarterback? No. There isn't another option that can learn Shanahan's offense and play it at a higher level than Garoppolo would next season, in all likelihood. Garoppolo has started 27 games for San Francisco, and this season was his first coming off an ACL tear.

He averaged 8.3 yards per attempt under pressure in 2017, before the injury, and just 7.0 this year. Let's see if he can get back to 2017 form in that area next year before trying to find San Francisco's next face of the franchise.

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The 49ers defense had been the best in the NFL at preventing explosive plays. Yet the Chiefs were able to get a slew of chunk plays in the fourth quarter.

Emmanuel Moseley sliding to the receiver underneath his Cover 3 zone, and not staying deep, led to Tyreek Hill getting open for the 44-yard catch on third-and-15. But that wasn't the only unique thing about that play.

Mahomes took a deep drop from shotgun, and was 13 yards behind the line of scrimmage when he threw it. He's the only quarterback in the league who can make that throw.

Other defensive mistakes: Kwon Alexander biting on play action on Mahomes' first-quarter touchdown run, Tarvarius Moore getting called for a clear pass interference in the end zone on the same drive as the third-and-15, Richard Sherman getting beaten for a deep pass on the go-ahead drive by Sammy Watkins, the usually sure-tackling Jimmie Ward taking a bad angle on Damian Williams, allowing him to score the final touchdown up the left sideline.

Suffice to say, the 49ers' collapse was a team-wide phenomenon Sunday. Through three quarters, they were the team they were all season. And then things crumbled in the fourth quarter.

Yet the search will continue for one person to blame. There were too many mistakes, variables and people involved for all the blame to fall on one individual. But that's what the 49ers will have to sift through this offseason as they look to get back to the Super Bowl next year.

Visit The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.) at www.sacbee.com

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