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Gone Fishin' casts its eyes at two amazing teams who just needed one break to go their way: Kansas City and San Francisco. 31 teams are disappointed at the end of every season. It's not a business for the faint of heart. These teams should be proud of what they did. But let's talk about why they lost and what it reveals about them.
Kansas City's pass offense falls apart as the Bengals storm back from 21-3
The Bengals made some key schematic adjustments in the second half. They moved to three-man rushes to get another man in coverage against Patrick Mahomes. They had their ends get upfield quickly to alter some of the easier throws in the Kansas City offense -- that first play in overtime where Trey Hendrickson forces a Mahomes pass wide is a good example. Essentially the Bengals gave up on pressuring the quarterback and asked Patrick Mahomes to beat them. And ... he didn't!
In the clutch moments of the game, near the end zone with the Chiefs able to take the lead with a touchdown, the Bengals got Mahomes moving and put him in hero-ball mode. This created a lot of scrambling, and the results of those plays did not quite match what happened last week when the Bills put the exact same sort of bind on him.
There's not a ton to critique about Mahomes, of course. He had a rough half of football. He had many rough halves of football this year as he dealt with defenses solely designed to stop him. The game plan probably got a little too pass-happy even as the Chiefs averaged a startling 5.8 yards per attempt. The only called run play the Chiefs had the entire second half that gained less than four yards was a one-yard carry on second-and-2 on the final drive of regulation. It's hard to blame the Chiefs for being overly reliant on the most talented player in the NFL, but considering the lead they were staked to and the success that they had up to that point running the ball, it definitely seemed awkward that they didn't run the ball more.
The topsy-turvy Bengals offense was bailed out by one of Joe Burrow's best games
Tony Romo was a popular punching bag on Twitter on Sunday -- and for good reason, he blew some big calls -- but he was right that Ja'Marr Chase was being doubled and pressed off the line as much as possible. Meanwhile, the Bengals also called a very safe game with a lot of run plays, contributing to their 21-3 deficit. But where did the Bengals get their key yards on the final drive of the game, once all the adjustments were made and done? Joe Burrow in the run game. Wait? Joe Burrow in the run game? Joe Burrow in the run game.
Burrow barely scrambled all season. He certainly doesn't have plus-plus athleticism or anything like that. But with the Chiefs keeping games in front of them, and their defensive line feasting on an overmatched Bengals offensive line, Burrow became a whirling dervish. He outperformed Mahomes on off-script plays. That was the biggest reason the Bengals were able to pull ahead. The Bengals were down to single-digit expected win percentages as the second half waned. You certainly can't be upset that the Chiefs defense allowed some points to the Bengals. That's going to happen. But -- let's say it -- Burrow performed better in the clutch than Mahomes on Sunday. I don't think I've ever seen him display this level of pocket movement before, and without it, the Bengals probably wind up punting at some point during their final drive of regulation. Burrow delivered.
What's the offseason plan for the Chiefs?
Well, they have Patrick Mahomes. So they're competing for a Super Bowl title again. Kansas City opens with $14 million in cap space per Over The Cap. They have three huge free-agent decisions. Left tackle Orlando Brown, who they traded a first-round pick for last offseason, midseason acquisition Melvin Ingram who turned the pass rush around, and star safety Tyrann Mathieu. (Mathieu wants to be back.) They could use another weapon on offense as Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce get one year further down the age model as far as likeliness to hit the wall. They do have a lot of money that could be freed up via Frank Clark ($13.6 million dead cap, $12.7 million cap savings on a release) and restructuring Hill's contract. They don't have a metric ton of flexibility or anything, but they should have enough to reload at least two of their three main free agents for another ride if they desire. They could also be players for, say, Odell Beckham if they were so inclined. While we love to talk about how much parity the NFL has, it's hard to imagine the Chiefs as anything but a written in stone contender as long as the Mahomes/Reid/Hill/Kelce constants are around and producing to career norms.
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Jimmy Garoppolo has two drives to win the game and can't gain a single yard
Yeah, let's start with that. The 49ers had the ball in a tie game, with 6:49 left -- then again down three with 1:46 and a timeout to play. They did not gain a single yard on either drive.
Now, most of that is on account of the 49ers not being able to hold up against the defensive pass rush that the Rams were able to throw out there on the last few drives. Aaron Donald and Von Miller were creating pressures left and right. Trent Williams was playing banged up and the 49ers interior line couldn't hold up, letting pressure get to the quarterback on most of the pass plays in the last two drives. But in another, more accurate way, the 49ers have been living on borrowed time with their starting quarterback for most of the last three weeks. Even up 17-7. Garoppolo made plenty of questionable throws and decisions along the way -- he was nearly picked by Jalen Ramsey on the second-to-last drive and it appeared he didn't even see the corner when he threw the ball.
None of this, at this point, is altogether unsurprising. The 49ers did draft a quarterback No. 3 overall. Trey Lance didn't win the job. But the reason you draft a quarterback like that is because you're not confident that the one you have can win games for you when everything isn't ideal. Garoppolo was playing hurt, so sure, give him some credit for that. But the team didn't have to play him. And so what the Rams did is shut down the San Francisco running game -- they gained 50 yards on 2.5 yards per carry -- and asked Garoppolo to beat them. The 49ers did the exact same thing to the Rams, right down to 2.5 yards per carry. The difference is that one team had Matthew Stafford, and one team had Garoppolo.
Neither coach covered himself in glory, but Kyle Shanahan made the game's biggest mistake
This was a game built for the second-guessing of the Twitter Age. Sean McVay lit two timeouts on fire with horrible challenges. He made some ugly red zone play calls. Even when McVay did the By The Book correct thing and went for it on fourth-and-1, Stafford was stuffed on his quarterback sneak.
But Kyle Shanahan came up with the mollywhopper, doing something that essentially every single model thought was a mistake when he punted on fourth-and-2 at the Rams 45, up three with 10 minutes left.
They never got the ball back to that spot on the field for the rest of the game. In fact, they didn't even come close to that spot on the field for the rest of the game. Shanahan punted in Rams territory on three different occasions. Obviously, not all of those were incorrect calls by the numbers, but when you get into opposing territory, punt it to them, and then watch them drive 94 yards for a score, it should probably dawn on you that this isn't exactly that type of game.
I give a lot of leniency to coaches. They are the whipping boys of our hot take profession, and the ones that make silly calls against the numbers like this are also the same ones who devise the play-action passes and run fits for opponents that do things like "make Jimmy Garoppolo look good." It's not an easy job. It's a role where someone like Bill Belichick can simultaneously be the greatest coach of my lifetime and also have become one of the most conservative coaches in the NFL by the pure math.
But in this game, at this moment, I think Shanahan faltered. I think he became a little too attached to his own tendencies. And that cost the 49ers a real chance at the win because the Rams were past their punt yardage in the span of two plays, right back in San Francisco territory. Even as good as the 49ers defense was, even as tough as they made the throws on Stafford outside of Kupp's silky smooth routes, they simply weren't up to the task.
What's next for the 49ers? Glad you asked because it turns out they really need to trade Jimmy Garoppolo! (OK, sure Kyle, you're not going to do it. Sure.) They enter the offseason with a little over $5 million in cap space per Over The Cap. Garoppolo accounts for $25 million of that, and will cost them almost nothing to trade. The Panthers and Football Team are easy targets, with perhaps a team like Pittsburgh or the Texans getting into the bidding as well. They don't have a ton of free agents they need to take care of, though holding on to Laken Tomlinson would be nice. D.J. Jones and Jaquiski Tartt would be other players the 49ers should probably try to retain.
Otherwise? The 49ers aren't really a team that has done mega free agency deals under John Lynch. They've done trades for guys like Dee Ford, but have mostly taken care of their own. I'm not sure that the way the offense runs, it's really a priority to get more skill position talent there. They may be mostly trying to retain what they have, build out their defense with a solid corner or two -- let's not run Josh Norman out there in 2022 -- and see what kind of players they can draft by moving on from Jimmy. Getting younger on the offensive line would be nice, too.