If Kyle Shanahan follows the career arc of 61-year-old Andy Reid, he’ll be the sentimental favorite in Super Bowl LXXV, in 2041. He’s an offensive genius, they’ll say, but in the biggest moments in the biggest games he makes decisions that just don’t make any sense. OK, maybe it wasn’t his fault that the Falcons blew that 28–3 lead in Super Bowl LI when Shanahan was the offensive coordinator. It’s not like Shanahan’s side of the ball gave up 31 points to the Patriots on five drives. And maybe it wasn’t his fault that the Browns lost Super Bowl LXIII. How was he supposed to know that Earnest Byner III was going to fumble on the goal line? But Super Bowl LIV—how can you explain that one away?
With 1:48 to go in the first half, Shanahan’s San Francisco 49ers stopped the Kansas City Chiefs on their own 49-yard line. The score was 10–10. The 49ers had three timeouts. They called none of them. By the time San Francisco got the ball back, there were just 59 seconds on the clock. By the time the Niners made a first down at their own 45, there were just 14 ticks left. San Francisco almost scored anyway, but a long Jimmy Garoppolo completion to George Kittle got called back on an offensive pass interference penalty. And so the score at halftime was what Shanahan had decided to settle for when he refused to make a “T” with his hands: 10–10.
After the game, Shanahan explained that he let the clock run down because he was afraid of the Kansas City offense. If the 49ers failed to pick up a first down themselves, he explained, then the Chiefs would get the ball back. Better, then, to let time expire, so nobody could score.
This is classic loss aversion: Shanahan was so afraid of the worst possible outcome that he forgot that it’s possible for something good to happen. Pro golfers often hit their birdie putts timidly out of fear of making bogey. In Super Bowl LIV, Shanahan got the ball on the green, then waited for the sun to go down so he didn’t have to putt at all.
Andy Reid, for his part, chose to keep on hacking. On the Chiefs’ second drive, facing a fourth-and-1 from the 49ers’ 5-yard line, quarterback Patrick Mahomes, running back Damien* Williams, and a pair of receivers did synchronized pirouettes in the backfield before Williams took a direct snap down to the goal line.
It was weird, whimsical, and highly effective. Two plays later, the Chiefs scored a touchdown to go up 7–3.
In the second quarter, the Chiefs went for it again on fourth-and-1 deep in 49ers territory, this time converting on an option pitch from Mahomes to Williams. Kansas City didn’t score a touchdown this time, instead kicking a field goal on fourth-and-7 to take a 10–3 lead. But Reid was put to the test twice and made the right call both times, trusting Mahomes and his offense to make winning plays. They did. And they won, 31–20.
Reid’s aggressiveness didn’t stop Kansas City from falling behind by double digits, just as they had in their first two games this postseason. Although Shanahan had presumably watched those games, he failed to understand that Kansas City was going to score more points than the 10 they had at halftime, and that it would thus be a good idea for the 49ers to score as many points as they possibly could. They didn’t. And they lost, 31–20.
In 2005, Andy Reid’s Philadelphia Eagles lost Super Bowl XXXIX to the New England Patriots when Donovan McNabb engineered the slowest hurry-up drive in the annals of professional football. Tom Scocca wrote years later that he watched that Super Bowl “with a friend who hates the Eagles, and he abandoned his rooting interest and started yelling at the TV set in sheer objective disbelief and frustration. How could any team be so stupid with so much on the line?”
In 2011, Andy Reid’s Philadelphia Eagles lost a playoff game to the Green Bay Packers in which, down 11 in the fourth quarter and facing fourth-and-1 on the Packers’ 16-yard line, they inexplicably tried a field goal rather than going for it. David Akers missed that field goal attempt. This time, Scocca wrote: “Andy Reid!” And what else did he need to write, really?
Reid botched other end-games, too, but let’s fast-forward past 2016 and get straight to tossing some confetti into the man’s bushy mustache. The old coach’s redemption with the Chiefs is a great story, and a heartwarming one. Perhaps he’s learned from his past mistakes, or maybe he’s been swept up in a league-wide trend towards fourth-down aggressiveness. Whatever the explanation, the lesson here is that a guy can change, and that sports have a tendency to drift toward dramatic irony. Who would’ve guessed, in 2005 or 2011 or 2016, that Andy Reid would win his first Super Bowl because the guy on the other sideline didn’t have a clue what to do with his timeouts?
Correction, Feb. 3, 2020: This post originally misspelled Damien Williams’ first name.
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