MIAMI — There are four things you should never do: Bet against Andy Reid with two weeks to prepare, bet against Kyle Shanahan with two weeks to prepare, bet, and watch a game without a little something riding on it. Come on, you only live once. You don’t want to be on your deathbed someday wondering why you didn’t take the 49ers plus-one and a half.
As with most football games, Super Bowl LIV will probably be decided by something you don’t really understand. Don’t worry about it. That’s pretty much how football works. And in this case, the 49ers’ Shanahan and the Chiefs’ Reid are exceptionally gifted at confusing the other coaching staff.
We’re not saying you need to go to Harvard to figure out what Shanahan is doing, but it sure helped Kyle Juszczyk out. He is the 49ers’ fullback, and as much as anybody, he epitomizes his team’s offense. Shanahan likes to meld old-school physicality with a complex, deceptive modern scheme.
“You have to take a holistic approach to it,” Juszczyk said. “You have to see the whole offense, and not just from one position. He’ll ask me to play tight end, the tight end to play fullback, a wide receiver to play tight end. You always have to be locked in. Even when he’s coaching up different positions, he may ask you to do that the following week.”
There are so many matchups that will factor into this Super Bowl. The 49ers have a dominant defensive line that could overwhelm the Chiefs’ offensive line. Both teams have incredible speed on the outside. But the most intriguing matchup is one that won’t really happen on the field: Can Shanahan’s wide-zone running offense outduel Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs?
To understand the enormity of the task, understand two things. One: when Reid has two weeks to prepare—after an off-week in the regular season or a bye in the playoffs—he is 23-5. Two: Mahomes is the best player in the NFL. Think of all the throws Mahomes makes that even other Pro Bowl quarterbacks can’t try—the no-look darts, the deep flicks while he retreats—and then think of this: Mahomes has thrown one interception or fewer in his last 23 games.
Lately, people have derided the 49ers’ Jimmy Garoppolo as a game manager. Garoppolo is better than that, but also: Mahomes may be the best game manager in football right now. He isn’t just a game manager, obviously. He is so much more that it sounds weird to think of him that way. But watch, for example, how good he is at throwing the football away when there is nothing there. He does it with authority, precisely when there is no play to make. His teammates have noticed. He is a brilliant player.
And so, while the 49ers may have the better overall roster, and their defensive front is a feisty, athletic machine, history tells us that Mahomes and Reid are going to find ways to score. They’re just too good. The 49ers just have to counter with an explosive offense of their own.
Garoppolo and the 49ers can do that, of course. Kansas City gave up 55 points in its first two playoff games. The Chiefs are a middle-of-the-pack defense, and Shanahan exploits middle-of-the-pack defenses.
At times in this game, the 49ers will run plays that look different to the Chiefs but feel familiar to the 49ers. Let Juszczyk explain.
“There’s always different wrinkles,” he said. “During training camp, OTAs, all that, we install this menu. And once it comes to actual game time, we pick pieces from that menu.”
Juszczyk played for the Ravens before arriving in San Francisco. He says the offense that Gary Kubiak ran in Baltimore “is what we ran in training camp, OTAs … that’s kind of the basic package. Kyle just evolves it from there. A lot more motions, more formations. We’re asked to do more things.”
Juszczyk put it simply: Shanahan designs “different ways to get to the same spot.” That kind of thing fools even good defenses. Then again, so does an athletic freak looking one way and throwing the other. There is a reason that the betting line is so small.
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