Dieter Kurtenbach: Is Kyle Shanahan's game management the 49ers' weak link?
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Dieter Kurtenbach: Is Kyle Shanahan's game management the 49ers' weak link?

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Sunday's 49ers-Ravens game was billed all week as a Super Bowl preview.

We should be so lucky to see these two teams play again in South Florida in February.

Because this regular-season contest did something extremely rare in this day and age: it actually lived up to the hype.

Sunday's contest in the rain and mud of Maryland was a true heavyweight bout, a line-of-scrimmage battle predicated on physicality and execution that left little between two of the best teams in the NFL - perhaps the two best teams in the NFL.

The difference in the Ravens' 20-17 win - at least as the box score tells it - was field-goal kicking and fourth-down conversions.

But the real difference in the contest might have been coaching.

The 49ers have lost two games this year, both on the final possession to a top MVP candidate - first Seattle's Russell Wilson in overtime of Week 10 and then Sunday to Lamar Jackson. There's nothing to be ashamed of in that.

But both contests felt defined by 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan's game-management decisions in them.

Against the Seahawks, fans questioned his decision to pass on three consecutive downs, despite being deep in their own territory, on the penultimate possession of the game. The Niners went three-and-out and Seattle subsequently won the game in overtime.

On Sunday, Shanahan's conservatism before halftime, his timeout management in the second half, and his decision to pass out of the shotgun on a fourth-and-1 situation in Baltimore territory on what turned out to be the penultimate drive loomed large in a contest where, again, there was little separating the two squads.

During the 49ers' run to legitimate Super Bowl contention this year - and make no mistake about it, Sunday confirmed, yet again, that this team is one of the NFL's elite teams - the questions of experience have loomed over the squad.

Simply put: Does this upstart team enough experience, enough gumption to overtake the league's best teams - the tried and true blue-bloods who have been in high-stakes playoff and playoff-like situations week after week, year after year?

The evidence to date says that the roster - led by Jimmy Garoppolo, who has moxie coming out of his small, unclogged pores, and the ever-confident Richard Sherman - does.

The jury is still out on the coach, though.

Of course, there's a level of excessive armchair-coordinator scapegoating to all of this. It might even be nitpicking. I'd even go as far as to say that all of Shanahan's decisions Sunday - and a few weeks ago, for that matter - can be easily justified.

Not pushing to score a touchdown on the final drive in the first half makes plenty of sense when you consider that they had a first-and-20 from their own 34-yard-line with 73 seconds remaining in the half. Your top priority there is to not give the ball back to Jackson - a player so dangerous giving him single snap could prove deadly.

Of course, when Raheem Mostert - who ran for 146 yards on 19 carries Sunday behind a dominant right side of the offensive line, comprised of Mike Person, Mike McGlinchey, and George Kittle - breaks off a 16-yard rush that puts your team in Baltimore territory with 26 seconds left, the paradigm changes.

San Francisco shifted to attack mode with the clock winding down, but by then too much time had passed, and the best they could do at the end of the half was watch kicker Robbie Gould miss a 51-yard field goal with the ball barely making it to the end zone after it was tipped at the line of scrimmage.

There's a middle ground between packing it in and going for it that wasn't found until the situation dictated a change in strategy. Analytical idealism overwhelmed pragmatic opportunism on that drive. Even though the logic checks out, there's no doubt that the situation could have been handled better.

The same goes for the decision to throw out of the shotgun on a fourth-and-1 from Baltimore's 35-yard line (undoubtedly influenced by Gould's terrible kick at the end of the half) on the Niners' final possession of the game. Shanahan's offense is built to run the ball and had been doing a fine job at it to that point - why throw? And why throw from a formation that effectively takes away the ability to run a quarterback sneak (which the analytics say is best possible play in a situation like that).

It's worth remembering that the Niners had success throwing on fourth down on two earlier opportunities in the game - one scored a touchdown - and the Ravens were still showing a packed box, the kind Shanahan said after the game you can't run against.

Shanahan said after the game that he had no regrets about passing the ball in that situation, but that he should have called a better pass play - perhaps one not from the shotgun.

Sometimes you make the wrong call. Even Bill Belichick makes mistakes.

But you cannot ignore the trend developing.

The Niners haven't lost two playoff-like games this year because they had less talent. They're losing because of failed execution on the field and on the sidelines.

The on-the-field aspect is forgivable. Sometimes you have to tip your hat to a truly great opponent like the Seahawks and Ravens. The other team's guys get paid to make plays, too. You take your licks, learn from them, and move on, hopefully better for the next contest.

The same truth applies to the on-the-sidelines aspect. If Shanahan was simply being "outcoached" by superior minds, that'd be one thing.

But these mistakes aren't as forgivable. As much as we'd like to make games out as coach vs. coach - a battle of the brains - Shanahan's questionable decisions weren't forced upon him by Pete Carroll or John Harbaugh. He's every bit their intellectual peer - he's out-coaching himself with too-cute-by-half calls, a lack of judiciousness with timeouts and clock management.

To date, he's done nothing to shake his reputation as the brilliant offensive coordinator that outsmarted himself and helped blow a 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI.

There are five bonafide Super Bowl contenders this season, in my estimation - Baltimore, Seattle, New England, New Orleans, and the 49ers. Are the fan bases of those four other teams truly second-guessing their head coach's game management in December?

I don't think so.

And that gives them a big advantage over San Francisco come January's playoffs, unless Shanahan can shake his rep and prove that he's up for the biggest of big moments in the weeks to come - that he can expertly walk the line between safety and risk when the contest is primed for definition.

Ironically, Shanahan is probably going to win NFL Coach of the Year. And he'll deserve it. That award takes into account more macro concepts. Shanahan has unquestionably built an incredible team and put them in great positions to win all year with his elite offensive play calling and support of the team's outstanding defensive coordinator, Robert Saleh. Awards voters eat that stuff up.

But end-of-season "NFL Honors" awards are for regular-season excellence.

There's only one trophy that means anything - it's named after Vince Lombardi - and in the playoffs, the difference between teams becomes granular. Even the smallest imperfection on the field or on the sidelines will be exposed.

In the playoffs, being a head coach than building a great team and calling clever plays - just ask Andy Reid, one of the greatest offensive minds in the history of the game whose game-management issues are a key component in him never winning a Super Bowl in his Hall of Fame career.

The 49ers have made a leap in 2019. They have proven - even in losses - that they can play and beat anyone in the NFL.

But Shanahan needs to show that he's made a leap, too.

Sunday in New Orleans - yet another playoff-like game, a contest with far more riding on it than Sunday's game in Baltimore - would be a great time to start.

Visit The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) at www.mercurynews.com

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