The San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys looked like top-eight NFL teams for most of the 2022 NFL season, but their head coaches played very different roles in their club’s hierarchy. Kyle Shanahan is arguably the best offensive schemer and play-caller in the league. Mike McCarthy — who called offensive plays as the Green Bay Packers head coach — delegates a lot of responsibility to his coordinators, Kellen Moore (offense) and Dan Quinn (defense).
On Sunday, Shanahan’s 49ers emerged with a 19-12 Divisional Round victory, but both head coaches struggled with game and clock-management issues throughout the night. Although the Cowboys’ season is over, San Francisco will face the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship Game. Given the strength of Nick Sirianni’s team, Shanahan can’t afford to sacrifice any win probability next week.
Kyle Shanahan’s Game-Management Errors Could Become a Problem
Shanahan is an excellent head coach. Let’s just get that out of the way. If he and the 49ers somehow parted ways this offseason, 25 other teams would be lining up to hire Shanahan the next day.
This season, Shanahan is guiding a San Francisco offense that’s now on its third quarterback of the year following injuries to Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo. Seventh-round rookie Brock Purdy is undefeated as the 49ers’ starter, and San Fran’s offense ranked third in the NFL in expected points added (EPA) per play in six regular-season games with Purdy as the primary QB.
Shanahan has managed this Herculean effort while working with an offensive staff full of new faces. Many of the 49ers’ offensive coaches landed positions with other clubs after the 2021 campaign, leading Shanahan to lean on inexperienced voices — such as broadcaster-turned-QBs-coach Brian Griese — on a week-to-week basis.
Shanahan’s hiring efforts also deserve praise on the defensive side of the ball, where he hired and promoted coordinator DeMeco Ryans, who appears poised to land a head coaching job this offseason. Additionally, Shanahan plays a crucial role in personnel acquisition and has a significant voice in the team’s roster-building strategy alongside general manager John Lynch.
There’s no question Shanahan adds value on the 49ers’ sideline in a myriad of ways, and the benefits he brings as a play designer may outweigh his deficiencies as an administrator. But his clock-management issues were ever-present against the Cowboys, and they could come back to haunt the 49ers as the postseason progresses.
Shanahan’s Questionable Decision-Making vs. Cowboys
Sunday night didn’t mark one of Shanahan’s worst days as a game manager, but there were still a couple of situations where the 49ers’ head coach might have done things differently, and both occurred near the end of the first half.
After recovering from an offensive holding penalty with a 17-yard pass to Deebo Samuel, San Francisco faced a 4th-and-2 from the Dallas 29-yard line. Down 6-3 with 3:48 remaining in the second quarter, Shanahan opted for a Robbie Gould game-tying field goal instead of trying for a first down.
The numbers from Ben Baldwin’s fourth-down model suggested San Francisco should have attempted to convert a first down in that situation. Still, even Baldwin’s data indicated the 49ers only lost 1.5 points of win probability by kicking in that scenario. If Shanahan wanted the points in what was projected as a close game, that’s fine.
What isn’t explainable is Shanahan’s clock management at the very end of the first half. After Fred Warner picked off Dak Prescott to give the 49ers’ offense the ball at the their own 28-yard line with 1:15 left in the second quarter, it looked like San Francisco could use its two remaining timeouts to mount a touchdown drive before halftime.
Instead, Shanahan made several odd decisions that ultimately cost the 49ers. Instead of trying to move the ball vertically on first down, San Francisco handed the ball to Samuel, who gained eight yards. Shanahan opted not to call a timeout.
Christian McCaffrey gained one yard on second down before going down with 51 seconds remaining in the half. Bizarrely, Shanahan let 21 more seconds roll off the clock before eventually calling a timeout.
Two plays, nine yards, 45 seconds burned, and one timeout essentially wasted.
Purdy bailed out the 49ers with a 10-yard completion to Samuel on third down, and Shanahan used his last timeout. A 21-yard pass to Jauan Jennings set San Francisco up in field-goal range at the Cowboys’ 32-yard line, but with only 12 seconds and no timeouts left, all Purdy could do was kill a few downs with throwaways before Gould hit his third kick of the night.
The 49ers should have had more time left on the clock and/or more timeouts to work with in that end-of-half situation, which would have at least allowed them a few shots at the end zone. But Shanahan’s botched management denied them those attempts.
San Francisco still managed to grab a win in the Divisional Round, but this isn’t a new phenomenon for Shanahan. He’s always struggled with this aspect of being a head coach.
Last season, Shanahan said he never considered going for a 4th-and-2 in Rams territory midway through the fourth quarter of the NFC title game. Los Angeles kicked a game-tying field goal on their ensuing drive and eventually won in regulation. Baldwin’s model indicated San Francisco lost 5.2 points of win probability by punting in that situation.
This year, the 49ers are the NFL’s seventh-worst team at going for fourth downs when the data suggests they should. Shanahan has consistently cost his team points — both expected and realized — by taking an overly conservative approach.
And it could come back to bite him and the 49ers next week.
No Margin for Error Against the Eagles
Shanahan escaped against the Cowboys, who have McCarthy to thank for a series of management blunders of his own. McCarthy was an even worse administrator than Shanahan on Sunday night, and the 49ers benefitted from several McCarthy errors.
But in next week’s NFC Championship Game, Shanahan won’t have a game-management advantage — or anything close to it.
Sirianni and his Eagles staff are among the NFL’s elite when it comes to exploring every possible edge. That’s apparent not only in their malleable offensive scheme but through their willingness to play an aggressive, analytically-inclined brand of football.
While the 49ers are horrendous at deciding when to go for fourth downs, the Eagles clearly know what they’re doing. Per Baldwin’s model, only five teams — the Packers, Cardinals, Bills, Lions, and Browns — were better at fourth-down decision-making during the regular season.
There’s a chance that game or clock-management concerns don’t crop up next week. But if they do, Philadelphia will have the upper hand.
If the Eagles have the chance to go for two when down by eight points, or not kick a field goal to go up six points late in the game, or attempt a late two-point conversion for the win instead of accepting an extra point and overtime, they’ll do it.
Philadelphia’s coaching staff isn’t preternaturally good in these scenarios — they practice them, gaining reps by observing what other coaches around the league do or don’t do in similar situations. Plus, Sirianni is no longer the Eagles’ offensive play-caller, having handed those duties to coordinator Shane Steichen midway through the 2021 season, so he has more bandwidth for this type of minutiae that could end up as a deciding factor.
As of Monday morning, the Eagles were listed as two-point home favorites in the NFC Championship Game, so we’re likely looking at a close contest. While Shanahan’s offensive mastery may end up being his trump card against Philadelphia, his game-management challenges could lead to the 49ers’ downfall.