Is Kyle Shanahan the Super Bowl's Charlie Brown? Why 49ers coach has three of big game's largest blown leads

Sports are about traditions, and going all out on Super Bowl Sunday with great dining spreads and having friends and family over to celebrate is one of America’s biggest ones.

Another football tradition, albeit a cartoon one in the comic strip “Peanuts,” is Lucy never letting Charlie Brown kick the football after holding it out for him, time and time again. After the San Francisco 49ers’ 25-22 overtime defeat to the now back-to-back Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, head coach Kyle Shanahan is now the Super Bowl’s Charlie Brown — always seeming to be in great position for success, but something goes terribly wrong.

“We all hurt and don’t have a lot of words for it,” Shanahan said postgame. “Obviously, we’re hurting, our team’s hurting, but that’s how it goes when you put yourself out there. I’m real proud of our guys, no regrets with our team. I thought our guys played so hard today not everything was perfect by any means, but if I’m going to lose with a group of guys, I’d do it with those guys any time and we’ll get over this and come back next year ready to go.”  

Shanahan has made the Super Bowl three times — once as an offensive coordinator with the 2016 Atlanta Falcons and twice as a head coach with the 2019 and 2023 San Francisco 49ers. Those three trips to the NFL’s final level have resulted in Shanahan being responsible for three of the largest blown leads in Super Bowl history. 

  • 25-point blown lead as Falcons OC (2016 in Super Bowl LI vs Patriots, led 28-3)
  • 10-point blown lead as 49ers HC (2019 in Super Bowl LIV vs Chiefs, led 20-10)
  • 10-point blown lead as 49ers HC (2023 in Super Bowl LVIII vs Chiefs, led 10-0)

A 10-point cushion being surrendered represents the second-largest lead blown in Super Bowl history with only the 28-3 collapse being the greater Big Game meltdown. 

Largest blown leads in Super Bowl history

* Kyle Shanahan was 2016 Falcons offensive coordinator, 2019 and 2023 49ers head coach

“This is my second Super Bowl as a head coach, but I think when you go against guys like Tom Brady and Pat Mahomes, you better never feel comfortable with the lead, and those are two of the best players to ever play the game,” Shanahan said. “That’s why, whether you have a lead or your down points, it’s those guys who are always in it. Watch them all the time, do that stuff.”  

Another recurring theme with Shanahan’s teams’ collapses — besides the caliber of quarterback they have faced — is their second-half breakdowns and going against typical, situational football norms. Following his and the 49ers’ second Super Bowl collapse against Kansas City, Shanahan’s teams have combined to score 12 points in the fourth quarter and overtime of those three games while their opponent have scored a total of 58 points (Patriots 25, Chiefs 33). 

Kyle Shanahan teams in fourth quarter/OT of Super Bowls







3rd Down Conversions



Shanahan’s issue

The play-calling issue for Shanahan after achieving those leads is obvious: not trusting his run game. He called pass plays on a 2:1 or higher ratio of his offensive plays in Super Bowl LI against the Patriots and Super Bowl LIV against the Chiefs once earning double-digit leads. Atlanta famously suffered a sack on second-and-11 up eight points in the final four minutes of their Super Bowl meltdown, which pushed them out of field goal range and prevented them from going up two scores with three minutes left to play. In the Falcons-Patriots Super Bowl, Shanahan called 12 passes to just four runs after reaching a 28-3 lead. In the first 49ers-Chiefs Super Bowl, he called 12 passes to five runs after reaching a 20-10 advantage. 

In Super Bowl LVIII on Sunday, Shanahan’s 49ers opted to pass at a 4:3 ratio after going up 10-0 in the second quarter, with 24 dropbacks to pass versus 18 rushing attempts. This time, that dichotomy was most glaring in the third quarter. San Francisco’s three third-quarter possessions were all three-and-outs after all three drives began with the 49ers in front. Eight of their nine offensive plays were passes despite having running back Christian McCaffrey, the 2023 NFL Offensive Player of the Year, at Shanahan’s disposal.  

Here’s a look at the 49ers three third-quarter drives while up by one possession:

  • Pass-Pass-Pass-Punt 
  • Pass-Pass-Pass-Punt 
  • Run-Pass-Pass-Punt  

McCaffrey still put together a strong performance with 160 yards from scrimmage, 10 of which came on a receiving touchdown from wide receiver Jauan Jennings, on 30 touches (22 carries for 80 yards and eight catches for 80 yards). Despite having an opening-drive fumble, he still became the first player in Super Bowl history with over 75 rushing yards and 75 receiving yards in the same game. 

However, Shanahan’s 49ers needed more McCaffrey like Christopher Walken needed more cowbell from Will Ferrell in their famous “Saturday Night Live” sketch. CMC totaled just eight touches for 28 scrimmage yards in the third and fourth quarters combined. Shanahan’s abandonment of his best weapon in the second half opened the door for Patrick Mahomes’ magic to get going. Once Mahomes gets in a groove, it’s too late. That was evident on the final drive of the night in overtime in which he completed all eight of his passes for 42 yards, including the Super Bowl-winning, three-yard touchdown toss to wide receiver Mecole Hardman. The game’s final drive represented Mahomes’ most pass attempts without an incompletion in any drive in his NFL career, regular season or postseason. Despite his lack of McCaffrey for most of the game after halftime, Shanahan maintained he will carry plenty of pride for the work he and his staff did in San Francisco’s losing effort. 

“No, I mean, yeah, when you go through football, and you watch it as part of our job, and any play that doesn’t work, you always think about that,” Shanahan said when asked about play-calling regrets. “But in terms of everything that we try to do, we try to prepare as hard as we can. We try to go in there and do exactly what we think is right based off our preparation, what’s going on in that game, and try to make the…what I can’t live with is when I do stuff that I didn’t plan on doing or that I didn’t do and second guess myself. I’m proud of what we did today as a coaching staff and as players in terms of what we did. We worked and we did everything that we planned on doing. We just didn’t get it done and any play that didn’t work out. Yeah, you always look at that stuff, but that’s how every game is and that’s what we work at.”

Mahomes’ Chiefs have five playoff wins after trailing by double-digit points — remarkable, considering no other quarterback has engineered more than one since 2018, when he became Kansas City’s full-time starting quarterback. Shanahan could have prevented Mahomes from even having the opportunity to get him again in the Super Bowl had he continued to stay committed to the engine of his 2023 49ers offense in McCaffrey. Instead, he got caught up in trying to go throw-for-throw with the game’s greatest quarterback today. 

Shanahan put himself in the unenviable Super Bowl position of being the Charlie Brown to Mahomes’ Lucy once again. Like Charlie Brown, the 49ers head coach is going to pull himself back up and try again in the 2024 season because that’s the only option he and San Francisco have. 

“There’s nothing different to say, I mean I don’t care how you lose when you lose Super Bowls, especially ones you think you can pull off, it hurts,” Shanahan said. “When you’re in the NFL, I think every team should hurt, except for one at the end. We’ve gotten pretty damn close, but we haven’t pulled it off. We’re hurting right now, but it doesn’t take away from how proud of our guys I am. I’m really proud of them today, too. As part of sports, as part of football, as part of life, as part of life. I’m glad we put ourselves out there. I love our team. We’ll recover, and we’ll be back next year strong.”  

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