Kurtenbach: Will 49ers’ Kyle Shanahan heed the lessons of the Super Bowl this offseason?
SANTA CLARA — Four days later, Kyle Shanahan is still wearing his team’s Super Bowl LIV loss, but he wasn’t shouldering any the blame for his team’s fourth-quarter collapse.
The 49ers’ head coach, alongside general manager John Lynch, met with the media Thursday for the first time since the immediate aftermath, and with a hoarse voice, tired eyes, and a tightly clenched coffee cup, said that he had no second thoughts or regrets over his game management or his fourth-quarter play calling.
“No,” Shanahan said when he was asked Thursday if he wishes he had any play-call from the game back. “I’ve been through it all, probably a thousand times in the last three days… I know what we didn’t get done and what happened, but a lot of credit I give to Kansas City.”
Shanahan and Lynch pushed the expected lines in their end-of-season presser: they want to celebrate all the good things the 49ers did this year, they have total confidence in quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and each other, they will use the Super Bowl loss as “fuel” to return next year, and that they want to “get better” this offseason.
The duo’s remarks closed the book on the Niners’ 2019 campaign. And while it was a surprisingly successful season, Sunday’s Super Bowl loss leaves the team in a peculiar and uncomfortable spot moving forward.
San Francisco was six-or-so minutes away from winning a title, validating everything the team did the past three years in the process.
Instead, those final minutes of the fourth quarter will loom over everything this team does until they finish the job and win the Super Bowl.
That’s an outrageously high standard moving forward.
Yes, until the Lombardi Trophy is lifted, the 49ers will live in football purgatory — too good to be losers but not good enough to be champions.
That standing makes this upcoming offseason so critical for Shanahan — who calls the shots in Santa Clara — and the 49ers.
The San Francisco head coach might not have any regrets over how he managed the Super Bowl — and his decisions were both well-explained Sunday and Thursday and totally justifiable — but from my vantage point, he was too conservative to win the game. The two most important non-fourth-quarter possessions in a football game are the final possession of the first half and the first possession of the second half. Those are tone-setting drives, and the 49ers had the ball on both of them.
And with those two possessions, they scored three points, opting to try to run out the clock at the end of the first half and kicking a field goal instead of trying to convert a fourth-and-2 to start the second half. The Niners had an advantage on the Chiefs and Shanahan decided not to press it.
As such, the Chiefs — aggressive from the start — never sweated and eventually found a groove that won them the title.
The 49ers have another advantage this offseason. The team is set to return a vast majority of their key players and all three of their coordinators for 2020 — they’re the Las Vegas favorites to win the NFC next year.
Will Shanahan press the Niners’ advantage now?
The Niners’ defense will be good next season, but not as good as they were in 2019. Check the stats: Elite defense isn’t sustainable in this era of the NFL.
The 49ers are also expecting Garoppolo to make a leap in his second year as a full-time NFL starter. He improved as this season progressed, but can he reach the point to where he’s capable of authoring a Super Bowl win?
Yes, this team is considered ahead of schedule and they’re young, too, but trying to run back as much of the 2019 team as possible for 2020 — hoping year-over-year progress is enough to get this team over the hump — doesn’t seem like much of a plan.
“We can’t go to the grocery store and say I’ll have that, I’ll have that, I’ll have that. It is more like, I’ll have that, but I might have to put that back,” Lynch said. “There are tradeoffs. It’s tightening up, but we knew that all along.”
But accepting the situation as good enough simply won’t be good enough — not in a division, conference, or league that’s this competitive.
The 49ers’ top priority this offseason will be contract extensions for DeForest Buckner and George Kittle. No one can argue with that.
And yes, the vast majority of the 49ers’ core will remain together — as it should — but like 31 other teams, San Francisco wasn’t good enough this past campaign and should look to upgrade this offseason.
But what do they do outside of that?
Want to help Garoppolo reach his ceiling? Go out and sign or acquire a bonafide No. 1 wide receiver. AJ Green and Amari Cooper could hit the open market this spring — and while they won’t be cheap and would likely require a roster shuffle, they could help take this 49ers’ offense to the next level.
Want to make sure the defense stays at the top? How about letting Arik Armstead — a one-year wonder — walk and using that money to bring in a player that helped them lose the Super Bowl, Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones?
None of this will be straightforward or easy. This isn’t fantasy football. And as Lynch noted, there will be trade-offs if the 49ers decide to go this route.
But there’s always risk involved in taking something that was good and trying to make it great.
Shanahan might not carry any regrets, but can he heed the lessons of the Super Bowl?
The 49ers’ return to the big game — their opportunity to exit football purgatory — likely rides on it.