The San Francisco 49ers on Monday signed new head coach Kyle Shanahan to a six-year contract. If things work out — and they probably won’t, football being football and the 49ers being the 49ers — Shanahan figures to make at least one appearance at CenturyLink Field annually through 2022.
On behalf of residents throughout the Pacific Northwest, Kyle, I hope your visits are merry and bright. Your Super Bowl 51 play calling allowed the Atlanta Falcons to supplant the Hawks as victims of the most frustrating defeat in NFL history.
Ding dong, the witch is dead.
OK, not really. Pigeons will be extinct before anybody around here stops bemoaning the goal-line interception that deprived the Hawks of a second consecutive Lombardi Trophy. But that “most frustrating” label has been transferred from Seattle to Atlanta.
A team can’t heal unless a team begins to heal, and to hear the 2016 Seahawks carping about a strategic blunder committed two years ago was to realize the enormity of the healing process. It’s like trying to fix Charles Barkley’s golf swing, or writing one-liners for a Vladimir Putin celebrity roast.
At least the Hawks have a relatively recent Super Bowl victory to console them. The Falcons were looking at their first championship, except “looking” is too soft a word. They were drooling, the way bull terriers might in anticipation of a red-meat supper.
Then a wire in Kyle Shanahan’s brain snapped, which snapped every other wire in his brain, and what ensued was a football version of the occasional power blackout that stops elevators across seven states along the Eastern seaboard.
In any team sport with clocks — which is to say, any team sport besides baseball — there comes a point when time is more relevant than the opponent. The Falcons owned a 28-12 lead when they began a fourth-quarter possession, at their 27-yard line, with 9:40 remaining.
Running the ball, keeping the clock ticking with prolonged huddles and extended snap counts, seemed the obvious way to go. The Falcons’ ground attack had been relentless — Devonta Freeman was averaging 8.2 yards a carry, and his legs were fresh after only nine attempts — but on a third-and-1 at the Atlanta 36, Shanahan decided to pick up the yard on a drop-back pass play.
Quarterback Matt Ryan got sacked, lost the ball, and what looked like a too-little, too-late Patriots comeback — lukewarm water taking forever to simmer on the stove — suddenly simmered.
Challenged to protect a 16-point lead with 9:40 remaining, the Falcons would end up running four more times. Their huddles typically broke with 20 seconds left on the play clock, and it was bang-bang on the snap count.
All season long, the Falcons had executed their versatile, faced-paced offense with a precision that set records. But the attempt to nurse a 16-point Super Bowl lead, midway through the fourth quarter, required them to take it slow.
Shanahan needed to make a philosophical adjustment — radical in terms of his scheme, perhaps, but pretty simple: hand the ball off to the guy averaging 8.2 yards per carry — and he froze.
Dan Quinn, the Falcons’ head coach, could have suggested some clock-killing running plays on his headset, but he froze too. The offensive coordinator had the keys to the car.
This is how we do it, I can imagine Quinn thinking to himself. If my OC wants to pass on third-and-1, we’re passing on third-and-1.
Although Shanahan’s inflexibility proved pivotal in the Falcons’ breakdown, it wasn’t a career killer. To the contrary. He’s been granted a golden parachute enabling him to land on his feet, 2,100 miles from Atlanta.
When the Seahawks-49ers rivalry was intense, San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh fulfilled every aspect of a classic foil: smart and successful, but a dweeb whose minimal social skills assure that every conversation will take an awkward turn a few seconds after “hello.”
Seattle fans should be more tolerant of Kyle Shanahan. His clock mismanagement in Super Bowl 51 means the the 2014 Seahawks no longer have the distinction of Dumbest Play Calling Losers in a Championship Game.
Construction of a Kyle Shanahan statue outside CenturyLink Field strikes me as excessive, but a video-board board tribute might be in order when the 49ers show up next season.
It could read: “Thank you, Kyle, for letting the Seahawks off the hook!”
Liberation never will fully ease the pain of giving a Super Bowl away. But, hey, it’s a start.
John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath