San Francisco 49ers: There’s A Fine Line Between Confident And Reckless

SANTA CLARA, CA - SEPTEMBER 10: Head coach Kyle Shanahan of the San Francisco 49ers looks on from the sidelines against the Carolina Panthers during the third quarter of their NFL football game at Levi's Stadium on September 10, 2017 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
SANTA CLARA, CA - SEPTEMBER 10: Head coach Kyle Shanahan of the San Francisco 49ers looks on from the sidelines against the Carolina Panthers during the third quarter of their NFL football game at Levi's Stadium on September 10, 2017 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) /

The San Francisco 49ers opened the Kyle Shanahan era with a resounding flop, with the first-year head coach making as many mistakes as his team.

Nobody expected the San Francisco 49ers to be great this season. Given that they’ve turned over the whole roster, have a rookie head coach and a rookie General Manager, most expected this to be a rough year filled with growing pains and plenty bumps in the road.

In week one though, those growing pains were agonizing and those bumps in the road turned out to be catastrophic sinkholes. To put it another way, the 49ers were bad on Sunday. Really, really bad.

The team made plenty of gaffes on their own – they failed to execute plays properly, turned the ball over too often, and generally looked like a team in rebuilding mode. As bad as the 49ers looked on the field though, it was Shanahan himself who threw gasoline on that dumpster fire of a performance they put up against the Panthers.

The final score was 23-3, but in truth, it didn’t even seem that close. The Panthers outgained the 49ers in total offense, 287-217, held on to the ball for almost ten minutes longer, racked up 20 first downs to San Francisco’s 13, converted 54 percent of their third downs, and outgained the 49ers on the ground, 116-51.

And oh yeah, they held San Francisco without a touchdown for the game – and without a single point until time was running out in the third quarter.

Suffice it to say, the effort the 49ers put up against Carolina wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t in the same universe as pretty. No, losing Reuben Foster to injury in the first quarter didn’t help, but let’s be real – Foster wasn’t going to be able to do a thing about their even-worse-than-anemic offense.

And this was a game some thought that they could have stolen. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, still recovering from shoulder surgery, had only thrown two passes all preseason long. Two. He was going to have some rust – and he did. Newton wasn’t anything resembling sharp.

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San Francisco was supposed to have a beefed up defensive front that would make life a living nightmare for opposing quarterbacks. They registered zero sacks and just two quarterback hits on the day. Two. Julius Peppers and Shaq Thompson alone, each totaled that many quarterback hits on Sunday.

As bad as all of that is though – and it is bad – Shanahan’s decision making was even worse.

Four times, Shanahan was confronted with a fourth down and opted to go for it. Three times, he failed. And twice, in the first half, Carolina cashed in on Shanahan’s reckless play calling.
Trailing 7-0, with just over six minutes to go in the first half, Shanahan opted to go for it on fourth and four at the Carolina 44. Quarterback Brian Hoyer was promptly sacked to force a turnover on downs. The Panthers turned around went just 27 yards before kicking a field goal to take a 10-0 lead.

Apparently not learning from that mistake, Shanahan found himself in another fourth down situation just before the half and made arguably, his most egregious play call of the game.

Facing a fourth and one at the Carolina 45-yard line, Shanahan sent fullback Kyle Juszczyk up the middle – where he was promptly stuffed for no gain, turning the ball over to the Panthers. Newton needed only 37 seconds to take his team back down the field and get them in field goal range.

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The decision to go for it on fourth down in that situation resulted in the 49ers going into the locker room at halftime down 13-0, rather than 10-0.

Two fourth down gambles, two failures, six points, and a two touchdown deficit. And let’s face it, these 49ers are not built to overcome two touchdown deficits.

In his Monday presser, Shanahan addressed the King-Kong sized elephant in the room.

"“I thought we were moving the ball pretty well and came up short there on third down, and I just, I believed we were going to get it. I had a lot confidence that we would and it just didn’t work out. But, definitely looking back on that, I wish I did punt because I think it would have made it a lot harder for them to go 90 yards.”"

It would have made it harder for them to go 90 yards? Gee, ya think?

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Of course, sending Juszczyk straight into the teeth of a defensive front that ranked sixth against the run last season was every bit the boneheaded call that the fourth and four play call was. Especially in light of how poorly the offensive line played.

Going for it on fourth down is a double edged sword in a big way. On the one hand, players are going to be fired up that their coach puts that sort of faith into them. If they pull it off and keep a drive alive, it can absolutely light a fire under a team and help them build some momentum.

On the other hand though, when the conversion attempt fails miserably – and multiple times – it can have a deflating, even demoralizing effect on the team as well. Especially when the coach rolls the dice – twice in a matter of minutes – and turns a seven point game into a 13 point game.

As poorly as the team as a whole played, Shanahan’s play calling didn’t do them any favors. He shot his own team in the foot repeatedly. The 49ers, as currently constructed, are not a team that is going to be able to surmount a large deficit.

Which makes it all the more mind-boggling that Shanahan would put them in a position where they’d have to.

Rolling the dice here and there is one thing. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing. But as a head coach, you also need to be realistic about your team’s capabilities. And Shanahan clearly overestimated his team’s abilities to respond in those situations.

Having confidence in your guys is never a bad thing – except when it leads you to do something reckless. As Shanahan and the 49ers faithful found out on Sunday.