Sports

Kyle Shanahan blew it by taking the ball first in overtime. Or did he?


LAS VEGAS — The coin landed on tails, and suddenly Kyle Shanahan faced a decision novel in football history. The San Francisco 49ers would dictate the order of possessions in overtime of Super Bowl LVIII and set a precedent for managing the NFL’s new overtime rules. What had been an automatic choice was now a topic for fresh debate — with the Super Bowl in the balance.

In the first overtime played since the NFL changed the rules to ensure possessions for both teams in the playoffs, Shanahan chose to receive. The choice provided fodder for an argument that will last all offseason. After the 49ers drove for a field goal, the Chiefs responded with a touchdown. The Chiefs celebrated. Shanahan had to wonder whether he made the right choice.

The one clear thing, based on the consensus of NFL analysts, is that there is no clear decision. The probability margins are small enough that game circumstances should dictate the choice. The 49ers may have lost, but from an analytical standpoint, Shanahan made a defensible choice that didn’t work out.

Shanahan’s decision came down to one premise: “We just wanted the ball third,” he said. If the 49ers and Chiefs ended their possessions with the same result, the 49ers would receive the powerful advantage of winning the game with a score. Essentially, Shanahan gave the 49ers the possibility for an extra possession.

“None of us have a ton of experience of it, but we went through all the analytics and talked with those guys, and we just thought it would be better,” Shanahan said. “We got that field goal, so we knew we had to hold them to at least a field goal. And if we did, then we thought it was in our hands after that.”

On the other sideline, Coach Andy Reid had told the referee what the Chiefs would have done if they had won the toss: They would have kicked off. Reid had come to that conclusion based on the work of Kansas City statistical analysis coordinator Mike Frazier. The Chiefs believed the certainty of the second possession, knowing how many points would be required, outweighed the advantage of a theoretical third.

The analytics departments of the two best teams in the NFL had come to disparate conclusions. In a nod to how close the call is, Reid consulted Patrick Mahomes at the last minute to make sure he still approved kicking off if the Chiefs won the toss.

“It can go either way,” Reid said. “But the one thing it does, it gives you an opportunity to see what you got to do.”

In practice, “getting the ball third” does hand the opponent some advantages. Any score by the 49ers guaranteed the Chiefs would never punt and would use four downs if needed. When Mahomes is the opposing quarterback, that’s a considerable defensive challenge. The Chiefs faced fourth and one at their own 34-yard line. Had they faced that down and distance on the opening possession of overtime, they might have punted. Needing a first down to stay alive, the Chiefs converted on Mahomes’s zone-read keeper.

The third possession is not guaranteed to materialize. If the 49ers had scored a touchdown, the Chiefs would have had to match for the third possession to matter. But if the Chiefs scored in that scenario, logic would have dictated attempting a two-point conversion, roughly a 50-50 chance and thus a better proposition than trying to prevent a field goal with a tired defense.

Some Chiefs players, who had been prepped for their overtime plan, doubted Shanahan. “They’re crazy,” defensive linemen Chris Jones said. Others, though, surmised that Shanahan had been swayed by the end of regulation, when the Chiefs forced overtime with a no-huddle drive.

“They were on the field for a whole two-minute drill, long drive,” Chiefs linebacker Nick Bolton said. “You don’t want to put them back out there right after that. They wanted to keep their legs underneath them.”

The quality of both offenses and a coach’s confidence in his team’s chance to convert a two-point conversion should be primary factors, football analyst and Athletic contributor Ben Baldwin said. The more likely it is that both teams score touchdowns, the more likely it is that the team that gets the ball second will go for two and negate the third-possession edge.

“Given all this — SF’s offense is very good, Chiefs have Mahomes, both defenses might be tired — I’d probably lean towards receiving but don’t feel super strongly about it,” Baldwin said in an email. “… I don’t think there’s an obvious answer, and you definitely don’t need to do the same thing every time. Although if I were forced to make a choice, I would have taken the ball second (this is also easy to say after the fact!).”

The 49ers and Chiefs also differed in how they prepared players for the new playoff overtime. Chiefs players had been prepped in detail about why they would kick off.

“We’ve talked about it all year,” safety Justin Reid said. “We talked about it in training camp, about how the rules are different in regular season versus the playoffs. Every week in the playoffs we talked about overtime. So we knew what our game plan was had we won the coin toss.”

Some 49ers did not even know the rules, let alone the plan. Multiple players admitted they did not realize they couldn’t win with a touchdown after receiving the ball. Some said they learned it when the scoreboard detailed the rules.

“I didn’t even know about the new playoff overtime rule,” defensive lineman Arik Armstead said. “It was a surprise to me. I didn’t know what was going on, in terms of that. They put it on the scoreboard, and everyone was thinking, even if you score, they get a chance still.”

The Chiefs themselves had sparked the new overtime format. The NFL changed the rules after the Chiefs scored a touchdown on the opening possession of overtime following an epic exchange with Buffalo Bills in the divisional round in 2022, robbing fans of a chance to see whether Josh Allen could respond.

No playoff games since had gone to overtime until Sunday night. It provided clarity on how the clock works under the new system, too. Both drives were methodical, and the Chiefs reached the 3-yard line with less than a minute remaining. They didn’t rush. Before the second possession of playoff overtime ends, the clock functions as if it’s the end of a quarter, not the end of a half. The Chiefs scored with three seconds left, but if they hadn’t, they would have had more time.

“One thing people didn’t realize is that clock keeps going,” Reid said. “It’s a unique rule. It doesn’t get used very often. I think it was great for the National Football League. It was great for the viewers. They got an extra quarter of football, and people love this stuff.”


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