The final stretch of the NFL season for Shanahan and the San Francisco 49ers will either be about as enjoyable as a foreclosure or his greatest ride. He’s reduced to a third-string rookie quarterback who was the last player chosen in the draftwith Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance hobbling in splints and braces. How many coaches can survive losing not one but two starting marshals? Still, there’s a glint of something insurgent in Shanahan’s eyes this week as he talks about throwing that young Brock Purdy against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in a quest to keep the streak alive. five-game winning streak and San Francisco’s playoff campaign.
“I love when a game is there that guys aren’t afraid to do it, they don’t hesitate, they don’t look twice at it. They let it rip and worry about it afterwards” , Shanahan said of Purdy.
Let him tear it up and worry about it afterwards – that was always Shanahan’s knee-jerk reaction, at least until the 42-year-old’s basic NFL football beat started to wear down and bring his teams to their knees. Anyone who watched him as a young assistant in Washington could see that he loved the game with the liveliness of a child. He drew open players on paper and got so excited when it worked that he continued the game on the sideline.
But what started as a joyful work experience for his father, Mike, became a tense psychodrama as they dealt with the destructive interference of owner Daniel Snyder. “That’s what you have to deal with,” Mike Shanahan told Kyle after they were both fired in 2013. “It’s not always good. That’s the reality.” The experience of seeing his father’s final years in the league ruined by a toxic workplace almost killed Kyle’s ambition to be a coach. For a time, it almost made him hate soccer. I’m going to quit before I go through this in another organization, he says to him. But it did a healthy thing for him. This hardened him to the external opinions of dilettante callers.
He lost not one but two Super Bowls after holding big leads, and the public narrative was that he undermined his own brilliance with miscalculations in big moments. As the 2017 Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator, he exceeded while holding a 28-20 fourth quarter lead over the New England Patriots, tried to close the deal with an assist instead of a run and had some bad luck. A sacking and then a hold call meant he had to live with Brady’s return for ages.
Three years later, he was back in the Super Bowl as coach of the 49ers, against the Kansas City Chiefs. What if he lost another big one? What if he did? Shanahan told his team, “Guys, I was in a Super Bowl, and a lot of people blame me for a lot of things, and you know what? I was still alive the next day. You go as hard as you can, you do as well as you can, and you live with the consequences. When they lost to the Chiefs despite having a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter, again, Shanahan was the fall guy. Commentators said passing plays should have been runs and runs should have been passing. It was now a brand in its own right that Shanahan had to wear.
Shanahan studied this searing film, scrolling back and forth, to see if there was anything he should have done differently, if there was a piece he would like to have in return. And there were none. A few months after that game, during the pandemic shutdown in the summer of 2020, Shanahan had time to have a phone conversation, during which he reviewed his career up to that point. “Everyone talks to me about ‘How do you live with what happened at the Super Bowl?’ ” he said. “And like, I to know What happened. I know how hard I work. If I call a pass that should have been a run or a run that should have been a pass, I never regret it. … And that’s what I tell our players. I’m like, ‘Guys, the only reason I’m not nervous on Sunday is because I know I gave it my all during the week, so that’s all I got, and I I’ll just let it go.’ And if it don’t work, man, I to know I will be heartbroken. But I know I can live with it.
The truth is that there are “greys” in decision-making at the head of a complex organization. It is rare for a decision maker to obtain pure justice or have complete control of their fate, because the competition is protean, it moves. What is essential, according to management scientist Paul Nutt, is to avoid hindsight bias. A good after-action review includes the uncertainties, pressures, and emergencies that a decision-maker experiences at the time. As Nutt observes, “hindsight requires little imagination and allows a critic to trumpet a now clear relationship between clues and consequences”. All uncertainties are “washed away”, leading to misleading conclusions. Leaders who last, those who live to fight another day, are those who resist the simple conclusion. They treat failure with curiosity, not blame.
Shanahan was one game away from a Lombardi Trophy, and he had seasons destroyed by injury – in 2018 Garoppolo tore his ACL in only the third week; in 2020, it was Nick Bosa who tore his in the second week – and he’s still looking. Now with a month left in the regular season, he must ramp up the plan around Purdy, hoping to ring the kid enough to complete crushing running play and jaw-dropping defense. But the thing with Shanahan is that you feel the prospect intrigues them – it’s curious to see what they can do under these circumstances. The league has yet to completely phase out its curious playfulness.
Shanahan has an intriguing ability to lose without losing heart. How? Its central idea is that fear of failure can pull you into the neutral, mundane, default call – and it’s the worst call of all because it will rob you of self-respect. He makes his calls as lucidly as possible, based on solid calculations – yardage, time on the clock, urgency, trends, probabilities and matchups – with the determination to stick to his best judgment, even if others rate the outcome as unsuccessful.
“I have prepared all my life so that when the time comes, I will be readyShanahan said on that phone call two summers ago, “and I call everything I think. If I didn’t prepare myself this way, eventually my nerves would get the better of you, and now you’re hesitating, and now you’re not calling what you think is right. Your intentions are wrong. How the hell can you be good when your intentions aren’t good? That’s all for me.
If Shanahan learns anything from Purdy in the next few weeks, it will be the gift of pure intention every game. What matters is “playing fast and having a clear mind and being prepared to be aggressive,” Shanahan said. Do that, and he can live with the score.