The 49ers Suffer Yet Another Heartbreaking Loss Deep In the Playoffs

Now I will say that I had this one called in my prediction post. I predicted 21-17 Rams and it ended up being 20-17 Rams. However, I also predicted the Chiefs to win 31-23 so, it’s a wash.

We’ll start with the Rams because this one is short and sweet: Great job, congrats on getting to the Super Bowl, what a story for Matthew Stafford–but we all know it doesn’t mean jack shit unless they win it. This season will be a failure if the Rams don’t seal the deal. They went all in to win the Super Bowl this year, and if they don’t, it will be a massive disappointment.

The Rams’ story continues. I’ll talk about the Rams after the Super Bowl.

The Niners are the team I want to talk about here. They have just authored their latest playoff heartbreak of the past decade or so.

Before we get into this game, let’s look back a bit at just how brutal it has been for the 49er recently:

  • 2011 NFC Championship: The Kyle Williams fumble game.
  • 2012 Super Bowl: Getting stopped just short of the goal line at the very end to lose to the Ravens.
  • 2013 NFC Championship: The Richard Sherman game.
  • 2019 Super Bowl: Blow a 10-point 4th quarter lead to the Chiefs, lose 31-20.
  • 2021 NFC Championship: Blow a 10-point 4th quarter lead to the Rams, lose 20-17.

There has been no team in the NFL over the past decade that has come closer to winning the Super Bowl but failing, and on multiple occasions, than the 49ers. No team has suffered as much playoff heartbreak without winning the big one as the 49ers.

The Seahawks had Malcolm Butler, but they won the Super Bowl the season before that.

The Falcons had 28-3, which is obviously going to stick with that team and those fans forever.

The Saints were on the wrong end of both the Minnesota Miracle and “The No Call” in the 2018 NFC Championship against the Rams. The Saints are the only team that has had about as many playoff heartbreaks as the 49ers–in fact, the Saints lost a real heartbreaker to the 49ers in the 2011 divisional round, just before the Kyle Williams fumble game. But the difference for the Saints is that they won the Super Bowl back in 2009, so it’s kind of recent. The 49ers haven’t won a Super Bowl since 1994.

The Packers have also had some big-time playoff heartbreaks over the past decade–the 2014 NFC Championship, the 2015 Larry Fitzgerald game, the 2020 NFC Championship against the Bucs, and then this year against these 49ers–but the Packers won a Super Bowl in 2010, and they haven’t been back since. The 49ers have suffered heartbreak deep into the playoffs on multiple occasions, including in the Super Bowl, twice.

I don’t think any team in the league has had their hearts broken as many times in the past decade as the 49ers have. Somehow, it just always ends in disaster for them, no matter how close they get.

Maybe this is karma from the football gods for all the hearts the 49ers broke during the Joe Montana era. The 49ers broke the Bengals’ hearts in two separate Super Bowls in the 1980s. They took down the Cowboys in the 1982 playoffs with “The Catch,” one of the most famous plays in league history.

Whatever the reason, there’s now a new addition to 49ers’ list of high-profile playoff heartbreaks.

The Jaquiski Tartt dropped interception was a major moment in the game. I’m not going to say the Niners would have won had Tartt caught the ball but they would have had much greater odds. 

It was 1st and 10, Rams ball at their own 15, score 17-14 San Fran, about 9:55 to play in the game. Tartt had the chance to intercept the ball at about the San Fran 35, and he probably would have been able to return it into Rams territory.

It was one of the easiest interceptions a defender could ever ask for. It was all there for the taking, and it would have been a huge play had Tartt been able to make it.

Instead, the ball fell harmlessly to the turf, and the Rams got to try again. They wound up kicking a field goal on that drive and tied the game up at 17.

Now, if Tartt comes down with that ball, worst case scenario the Niners go three and out, run a minute and a half off the clock and then punt it back to the Rams with about 8:15 to play. But it was more about the momentum of the game, and I think it shifted on that dropped play.

Maybe if the ball is caught, throwing the pick gets in Stafford’s head and he starts doubting himself. Instead the 49ers were devastated and the Rams were emboldened. The problem with big missed opportunities like that is that teams often can’t stop dwelling on them. It’s human nature. You keep replaying it in your head wishing you could go back in time and do it all over again. We all do it. That stock we should have held on to, that girl we should have asked out, that house we should have bought, that job we should have accepted. Regret sticks with you a long time. 

In football though, you have to be able to move on immediately. Instantly forget about it. Because the next play is in 40 seconds. But it’s impossible to “self-neuralyze.” You can’t just wipe your memory instantly. Your mental state suffers. Your head is no longer in the game. You get down on yourself. You lose focus, so bad things start happening, and then you plummet even more emotionally, so then more bad things happen, which only causes you to get even more down on yourself and frustrated. It’s a huge emotional killer for not only the player that made the mistake but for the whole team. It can lead to your entire team spiraling mentally.

It begins a death spiral for a team unless someone steps in to stop it. Generally that means somebody else makes a big play to make up for it. Some teams have coaches or QBs–or any other “locker room leader” type guys–who are emotional leaders and can pull their teams out of bad mental states just by giving a pep talk. But generally you need somebody on the team to step up to make a play and reverse the momentum. However, you can’t try too hard to make a game-changing play or else you’ll lose discipline and make a mistake—potentially an even bigger mistake.

Really the only answer is to have a short memory. Just forget it and move on to the next play. Sure, it was a missed opportunity but there’s nothing that can be done about it now. There’s no use crying over spilled milk.

But see, this is a culture that has to be instilled into the team over a long period of time. It’s something the coach must consistently preach from the first day of training camp, so that when you’re deep in the playoffs and something bad happens (like this), you are ready for it. If a coach has been preaching short-term memory all year long and then the Tartt play happens, the team will better be able to move past it. “Hey, like we always say, short term memory. Forget it and move on.” But I don’t think the Niners had that instilled in them. Because it seemed like they completely imploded from that point on.

Best-case scenario if Tartt comes down with that pick is he returns it to around the 50, and then the Niners go on a slow methodical drive and score a TD with like 2 minutes left on the clock.

Medium-case scenario would have been he secures the pick and the Niners get a field goal out of it while taking 3-4 minutes off the clock, giving the Rams the ball back down 6 with like 5 minutes to play.

What really would bug me if I were a 49er fan, though, is how bad the offense was in the 4th quarter, especially on those last two drives. A lot of people, of course, are going to blame Jimmy Garoppolo. They’re going to say he’s not the guy, he can’t get it done in the big moments, you can’t win a Super Bowl with him, etc.

That last interception that sealed the game, though, that was not Jimmy G’s fault. Aaron Donald collapsed the pocket on him and Jimmy G was trying to just get the ball out and avoid taking a sack. It actually hit his receiver somewhat in the hands (although it was high) and was tipped into the defender’s hands for the pick. Jimmy G was just trying to extend the play. His receivers were covered and he had nowhere to go with the ball. It was 3rd and 13 with 1:20 to go at the San Fran 22. Taking a sack there would have been devastating. Of course the pick was devastating, but if he took the sack there, it would have been a 4th and 25 from the San Fran 10 yard line, and they only had one timeout remaining. It was basically game over if he took that sack, so he had to try to get rid of the ball. It was just an unfortunate bounce off his receiver’s hands. Honestly Jimmy G did a great job of not getting sacked immediately, he evaded a tackle and did his best to extend the play. I would not put the blame for that on him.

Who’s fault was it, then? I guess you could blame the offensive line, but Aaron Donald just made a great play. That’s what elite players like Aaron Donald do. You can’t really knock an offensive lineman for getting dominated by Aaron Donald. That’s expected. Plus, Donald wasn’t the only Rams lineman who shed his blocker. Leonard Floyd did, too, and Von Miller was in the area as well. The Rams’ defensive line just won on that play–plus their secondary had great coverage.

I think overall, the blame for this loss has to go on Kyle Shanahan. This is the 3rd time he has blown a 10+ point 4th quarter lead deep in the playoffs, and it’s becoming a trend.

Kyle Shanahan has now been outscored 53-0 in the 4th quarter of his last three playoff losses: the 2016 Super Bowl against the Patriots when he was with the Falcons (19-0), the 2019 Super Bowl against the Chiefs (21-0), and now 13-0 in the 2021 NFC Championship game against the Rams. Kyle Shanahan has a serious problem with closing out games. 

Now, in fairness, the 28-3 game doesn’t fall completely on him. He wasn’t even the head coach. Dan Quinn deserves some of the blame, as does Matt Ryan for getting sacked out of field goal range and also fumbling. But still. Kyle Shanahan was calling the plays. He was unable to guide his team to victory after going up 28-3. All the Falcons really needed was one field goal and they would have secured that Super Bowl Championship.

In this game last night, he had a 17-7 lead going into the 4th quarter. After the George Kittle TD that made it 17-7, the Niners’ final three drives to close out the game went as follows:

  • 6 plays, 36 yards, punt.
  • 3 plays, -5 yards, punt.
  • 3 plays, -3 yards, interception.

Those were the Niners’ 3 possessions in the 4th quarter of the NFC Championship. Obviously that is not going to get the job done.

There is a moment I can think of in that game beyond the Tartt dropped interception that to me was Kyle Shanahan coaching scared. It right before the Tartt play; it was when the Niners had 4th and 2 at the 50 with about 10 minutes to go, and they punted instead of going for it.

After getting stuffed on 3rd down, they sent out the punt team, but McVay actually threw a challenge on the play, thinking the 49ers fumbled it. The refs reviewed it, confirmed that the 49ers hadn’t fumbled, and then Shanahan surprised everybody by sending his offense back on the field after the stoppage. But they didn’t end up going for it; they were just trying to draw LA offsides and pick up a free first down, but LA didn’t bite. San Fran took the 5 yard delay of game penalty and punted it away.

Then, LA’s very next play was the bomb that Tartt should have picked off.

I think Shanahan should’ve gone for it on that 4th and 2, though. I know it’s easier to say with hindsight, but I thought in the moment that he should’ve gone for it. I understand giving the other team the ball on the 50 yard line is bad, but the 49er defense had been holding up well all game long. The Rams only had 14 points up to that point in the game. Shanahan should’ve went into his bag of tricks and called his best play to get the first down there. You keep the clock rolling in the 4th quarter and give yourself a chance to add to your lead, which at the time was only 3 points.

It’s just a matter of coaching scared vs. coaching to win. It’s the NFC Championship Game. You have to play aggressive and play to win. You have to gamble. So many NFL games are decided by a single play on which a coach gambles, usually on 4th down. Super Bowls have been won and lost on a coach’s gamble.

Sometimes you just have to take that leap of faith, where if you fail you’re fucked, but if you succeed you either secure the win or greatly increase your odds of winning. That 4th down last night was one of those moments for Kyle Shanahan, but he punted–literally and metaphorically.

When people talk about “playing to win vs. playing to not lose,” this is exactly what they’re talking about: being aggressive and taking risks and putting it all on the line.

This goes against human nature. People are naturally averse to risk. They would rather play it safe and stay in their comfort zone. They shy from the pressure.

But as the saying goes, you gotta risk it for the biscuit.

In most playoff games, coaches usually don’t have the security and luxury of being up 24 points in the 4th quarter, where they can play conservatively and not worry about blowing the lead (although Kyle Shanahan has had a 25 point second-half lead in a Super Bowl and still managed to blow it).

Often these playoff games come down to one play, or one decision to go for it on 4th down, and how that one play goes determines the outcome of the game.

I don’t think Kyle Shanahan was coaching to win last night after he got up 17-7. I think he was coaching to not lose. He wanted to just run the clock out and not worry about making any big gambles.

Now this is not to say the 49ers should consider firing Kyle Shanahan. Overall, he’s one of the better coaches in the league. They would be idiots to fire him; he’d get scooped up by somebody else in a heartbeat if he ever got fired.

But Kyle Shanahan needs to go back to the drawing board and figure out what he needs to do differently late in games when he has a lead.

Getting rid of Jimmy G is not going to fix the problem. Sure, Garoppolo didn’t set the world on fire last night or anything, but his numbers were fine: 16-30 passing, 232 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT, 71.0 QBR. And that’s with the Rams largely stonewalling the normally excellent 49er run game: the 49ers’ running backs had 19 carries for 46 yards in the game. That is not going to get it done. Their longest run was 9 yards.

Plus, Jimmy G was good enough to get the 49ers a 10-point 4th quarter lead, wasn’t he?

Well, now the 49ers will likely begin the Trey Lance era. I don’t know how that will go for them. Obvoiusly I hope Lance works out, but from what I’ve seen of him this year in his limited playing time, he seemed very frantic and at times in way over his head. But that’s to be expected for a guy who only had 288 total snaps his entire college career–and he played at the D2 level. Trey Lance was and is a very raw QB prospect. He did flash some nice potential, particularly with his speed, elusiveness and ability to avoid sacks and keep plays alive. Jury is still out on the arm, though.

I wonder why we didn’t see any Trey Lance designed plays in the playoffs for the 49ers, though? Why not try a little change-of-pace QB action, especially last night with the run game not working? You drafted the guy #3 overall and traded up to do so–why not put his talents to use in the biggest game of the year? I’m not saying the 49ers should’ve benched Jimmy G–not by any stretch. But Trey Lance’s ability to run might have been able to help the 49ers last night. Maybe on that 4th and 2 they didn’t go for, perhaps?

No use talking about it now, though. The game is over and it’s in the past.

Looking forward, I think Kyle Shanahan will be able to turn Lance into a dangerous NFL QB. He has that running element that makes QBs so dangerous, and if Trey Lance pans out, the 49ers could remain a really good team for a long time.

But Kyle Shanahan will still have to overcome his late-game woes come playoff time.

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