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Flat Brim, Flattened Dreams- Kyle Shanahan's Love-Hate Relationship with the Big Game
Photo: Feb 11, 2024; Paradise, Nevada, USA; San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan walks off the field after losing Super Bowl LVIII to the Kansas City Chiefs at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Flat Brim, Flattened Dreams- Kyle Shanahan's Love-Hate Relationship with the Big Game

It's fourth quarter, Super Bowl LVIII. The clock's ticking down faster than a Niner fan's heart rate. Kyle Shanahan, the boy wonder of NFL coaching, paces the sideline, his trademark flat-brimmed hat pulled low over his eyes. His 49ers are up, again. The Lombardi Trophy is so close he can almost taste it.

Stop me if you've heard this one before.

Spoiler alert: The Chiefs win. Again. And Kyle Shanahan, the offensive genius, the man with football greatness supposedly coded into his DNA, is left explaining another soul-crushing defeat on the biggest stage in American sports.

"It's like watching a rerun," says former NFL linebacker and current analyst Bart Scott. "Shanahan's teams get to the dance, but when it comes time for the final number, they're all left feet."

Welcome to the Kyle Shanahan experience, folks. It's a wild ride of offensive wizardry, regular-season dominance, and postseason heartbreak that would make even the most die-hard Niners fan reach for the Pepto-Bismol.

Let's rewind the tape and see how we got here, shall we?

Born with a Silver Whistle

Kyle Michael Shanahan entered this world on December 14, 1979, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His father, Mike Shanahan, was busy coaching at the University of Minnesota, probably diagramming plays on Kyle's diapers.

Young Kyle grew up as NFL royalty. While other kids were playing Madden, he was living it. His dad went on to become the architect of the Denver Broncos' back-to-back Super Bowl wins in the late '90s. It wasn't long before Kyle was following in daddy's footsteps, his rise through the coaching ranks smoother than a greased pig at a county fair.

"Sure, the kid's got talent," admits former NFL coach Rex Ryan. "But let's not pretend his last name didn't open a few doors. When your pop's Mike Shanahan, you don't exactly start in the mailroom."

Indeed, Kyle's rapid ascent raised more than a few eyebrows around the league. At 28, he became the youngest coordinator in NFL history when the Houston Texans named him offensive coordinator in 2008. Was it his innovative play-calling that got him the gig, or was it the Shanahan name on his birth certificate?

"Both," says NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. "Kyle's always had a brilliant football mind. But having Mike Shanahan as your personal mentor? That's like learning to paint from Picasso."

The nepotism whispers followed Kyle to Washington, where he served as offensive coordinator under his father from 2010-2013. The Shanahans' tenure in D.C. was a mixed bag, highlighted by Robert Griffin III's electric rookie season in 2012. But it also ended in acrimony, with both father and son fired after a disastrous 3-13 campaign in 2013.

"That's when we started to see some cracks in the golden boy façade," says former Washington tight end Chris Cooley. "Kyle's offense was innovative, sure. But there were times when it felt like he was trying to outsmart himself. And don't get me started on how they handled RG3's injury."

The Atlanta Meltdown

Despite the Washington debacle, Kyle's stock remained high. He landed in Atlanta as offensive coordinator in 2015, and it was there that his reputation as an offensive savant reached its zenith.

In 2016, the Falcons' attack was a thing of beauty. Matt Ryan played like a man possessed, throwing for nearly 5,000 yards and 38 touchdowns en route to the NFL MVP award. The Falcons steamrolled their way to the Super Bowl, where they faced off against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

We all know what happened next.

28-3. A lead so large it spawned a thousand memes. A collapse so epic it'll be discussed in sports bars until the heat death of the universe. And at the center of it all? Kyle Shanahan, the offensive genius who suddenly couldn't call a run play to save his life.

"That game was Kyle in a nutshell," says former NFL quarterback and current analyst Boomer Esiason. "Brilliant for three quarters, then he outthinks himself when it matters most. It's like he's allergic to playing it safe."

The 49ers Gamble

Despite the Super Bowl disaster, Shanahan's star hadn't dimmed. The San Francisco 49ers, desperate to recapture their glory days, handed him the keys to the kingdom in 2017. At 37, Kyle was one of the youngest head coaches in NFL history. The 49ers' brass was betting big that the Shanahan magic would translate to the Bay Area.

For a while, it looked like they'd hit the jackpot. After a rocky start, Shanahan's 49ers caught fire in 2019. Led by a smothering defense and Shanahan's innovative offense, San Francisco bulldozed their way to a 13-3 record and a Super Bowl berth.

Stop me if you've heard this one before.

Up 20-10 in the fourth quarter against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, Shanahan once again watched a championship slip through his fingers. His play-calling in the final frame was more conservative than a 1950s sitcom, and the 49ers' vaunted defense melted faster than an ice cream cone in August.

"It was déjà vu all over again," says former 49ers great Jerry Rice. "Kyle's a brilliant coach, but in that moment, it was like he forgot everything he knew about offense. You can't play not to lose against a team like the Chiefs."

The Super Bowl loss seemed to light a fire under Shanahan. The next two seasons saw the 49ers battle through a plague of injuries that would have made Job wince, yet still manage to reach the NFC Championship in 2021. But once again, when the bright lights came on, Shanahan's team wilted. Up 17-7 in the fourth quarter against the Rams, the 49ers collapsed, punching their ticket home instead of to the Super Bowl.

"At this point, you have to wonder if it's psychological," muses sports psychologist Dr. Jonathan Fader. "Shanahan's clearly brilliant, but these repeated failures in big moments can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. He might be coaching scared, afraid to make the big mistake."

The 2023 Rollercoaster

Just when it seemed like Shanahan's legacy was set in stone, the 2023 season rolled around. The 49ers, led by the surprising emergence of quarterback Brock Purdy and a star-studded cast including Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, and George Kittle, stormed through the regular season and playoffs. They found themselves back in the Super Bowl, facing off against the Kansas City Chiefs in a rematch of their 2020 heartbreak.

The stage was set for Shanahan's redemption arc. Instead, football fans witnessed a case of déjà vu that would make Bill Murray's character in "Groundhog Day" wince.

With a 10-point lead early in the fourth quarter, Shanahan's 49ers seemed poised to finally shed the "choker" label. But as the clock ticked down, that old familiar feeling crept in. The Chiefs, led by the indomitable Patrick Mahomes, mounted a comeback for the ages.

Then came overtime, and with it, a decision that would be dissected more thoroughly than a frog in a high school biology class. Shanahan, on the advice of his analytics department, chose to receive the ball first in overtime. It was a move that had football pundits scratching their heads and Chiefs fans grinning like they'd just won the lottery.

"You've got Patrick Mahomes on the other sideline, and you're giving him a chance to win the game with a touchdown?" ESPN analyst Ryan Clark exclaimed. "That's like handing a starving lion a steak and hoping he doesn't eat it."

To make matters worse, it came to light that some 49ers players weren't even aware of the new overtime rules. Shanahan defended his communication, but the damage was done. The 49ers managed only a field goal on their opening drive, and Mahomes, being Mahomes, led the Chiefs to a game-winning touchdown.

Final score: Chiefs 25, 49ers 22. Shanahan's third Super Bowl loss, his second as a head coach, both to the same team.

"At some point, it stops being a coincidence and starts being a pattern," Clark added. "And Shanahan's pattern is clear: when the pressure's on, he wilts faster than a daisy in Death Valley."

The Choker Label

As the confetti rained down on the Chiefs for the second time in five years, the whispers about Shanahan grew to a roar. The "choker" label, once a quiet murmur, now echoed through every sports bar and Twitter thread in America.

"Kyle's at a crossroads," says NFL Network's Michael Silver. "He's got all the tools – a talented roster, a supportive ownership, and one of the sharpest minds in the game. But at some point, potential has to translate into championships. If it doesn't happen soon, you have to wonder if it ever will."

The criticism isn't just coming from the media. Former players have started to chime in, questioning Shanahan's ability to make crucial decisions in the heat of the moment.

"It's like he overthinks everything," says an anonymous former 49er. "In practice, he's a genius. But when the game's on the line, it's like he forgets all of that. He's so afraid of making a mistake that he ends up making the biggest mistake of all – playing not to lose instead of playing to win."

Even Shanahan's vaunted offense, long considered his calling card, has come under scrutiny. While it's undeniably effective in the regular season, critics argue that it becomes predictable in the playoffs when teams have more time to prepare.

"Every coach in the league knows what Shanahan's going to do," says a current NFL defensive coordinator who wished to remain anonymous. "The problem is, most of the time, you still can't stop it. But in the playoffs, when you've got two weeks to prepare? You can find the cracks. And once you find them, Shanahan doesn't always adjust as quickly as he needs to."

The Defense

Of course, Shanahan isn't without his defenders. His supporters argue that his consistent success in getting teams to championship games is a testament to his coaching ability. As Shanahan himself pointed out after the latest Super Bowl loss, "The fact that we keep getting there shows how much we win big games. These two Super Bowls have been tough, losing to Kansas City... But to say the Niners can't win a big game would be an extremely inaccurate statement."

Indeed, Shanahan's offensive innovation, player development skills, and ability to consistently field competitive teams make him one of the NFL's top coaches. His offenses have consistently ranked among the league's best, and he's shown a knack for maximizing the talents of both star players and unheralded contributors.

"Kyle's a brilliant coach, no doubt about it," says former NFL coach Tony Dungy. "He's the best coach in the NFL Monday through Saturday. But in this league, you're judged on what you do on Sunday. And so far, Sundays haven't been kind to Kyle."

The Verdict

So, where does this leave Kyle Shanahan? Is he a tactical genius or a perennial choker? The answer, as it often is in life, isn't black and white.

There's no denying Shanahan's brilliance as an offensive mind. His ability to scheme receivers open, create mismatches, and adapt his system to different personnel is second to none. He's taken the 49ers to two Super Bowls and four NFC Championship games in seven years – a record most coaches would kill for.

But the elephant in the room remains: zero championships. In a league where you're only as good as your last game, Shanahan's repeated failures on the biggest stage are impossible to ignore.

"He's like the Atlanta Braves of the '90s," says sports radio host Jim Rome. "Great regular season, always in the mix, but can't seal the deal when it matters most. At some point, you've got to wonder if it's more than just bad luck."

As we head into the 2024 season, the Kyle Shanahan story is still being written. His offensive genius is undeniable – just ask any defensive coordinator who's had to game plan against his scheme. His ability to maximize talent is remarkable – look no further than the production he's gotten out of late-round draft picks and undrafted free agents.

But the big question remains: Can Kyle Shanahan win the big one?

The whispers of nepotism have faded, replaced by murmurs of a more damning nature. "Choker." "Can't win the big one." "Another Andy Reid" (and not in a good way). Fair or not, these are the labels that threaten to define Shanahan's legacy if he can't get over the hump.

As for Shanahan himself? He remains as cool and collected as ever, at least publicly. The flat-brimmed hat still sits low over his eyes, the play sheet still clutched tightly in his hand. But one has to wonder: When he's alone, in the quiet of his office, does he see visions of confetti falling for the other team? Does he hear the echoes of "28-3" and "20-10" ringing in his ears?

Only time will tell if Kyle Shanahan can exorcise these demons and claim his place among the coaching elite. Until then, he remains one of the most fascinating figures in the NFL – a brilliant mind haunted by his own failures, a golden boy tarnished by the harsh spotlight of expectation.

The clock is ticking, Coach Shanahan. What will you do when it matters most?