After his San Francisco 49ers advanced to the Super Bowl on Sunday night, Kyle Shanahan was asked on the winner’s stage at Levi’s Stadium whether he felt he had unfinished business.
Shanahan paused for a second before obviously saying yes. At that moment, he probably thought about the Super Bowl LIV loss to the Kansas City Chiefs—the team the 49ers will face in this year’s Super Bowl in Las Vegas. He might have also remembered the 28–3 collapse against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI when Shanahan was the offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons.
So, yes, it’s unfinished business for Shanahan and his 49ers. But they got rid of a few narratives during their come-from-behind 34–31 victory against the Detroit Lions in Sunday’s NFC title game.
The Chiefs don’t have much to prove besides adding to their legacy. They can become the first team to win back-to-back Super Bowls since the 2003-04 Patriots. Kansas City returned to the big game after defeating the Baltimore Ravens, 17–10, in the AFC title game.
Let’s take a look at both title games, as well as the fast-moving coaching carousel, to determine this week’s winners and losers.
Shanahan and quarterback Brock Purdy proved plenty during the 49ers’ 17-point rally in the second half vs. the Lions.
We can stop mentioning Shanahan’s struggles in the fourth quarter. And we can definitely stop referring to Purdy as if he is the weak link on a stacked 49ers offense. The 49ers don’t win without Purdy, who took chances downfield to get his team back in the game. Sure, Purdy’s 51-yard completion to Brandon Aiyuk was a bit lucky because it bounced off the helmet of Lions cornerback Kindle Vildor. But Purdy isn’t afraid to take his shots, which was an issue during the Jimmy Garoppolo era.
Purdy also hurt the Lions’ defense with his mobility; he had 48 of the team’s 155 rushing yards. The 49ers’ defense struggled, but the unit stepped up with two fourth-down stops and a forced fumble to change the momentum in the second half. After falling short many times under Shanahan, they can now make it all worth it by defeating the Chiefs in Las Vegas.
The Chiefs kept it simple with their game plan and that was enough to get past the relatively inexperienced Ravens in the AFC title game.
Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce made plays with a balanced attack to dominate the time of possession (37:30 to 22:30), which frustrated the Ravens’ top-ranked defense. Even with the lengthy drives, the Ravens couldn’t force the Chiefs into mistakes—Baltimore had three turnovers compared to none for Kansas City.
Lamar Jackson, who accounted for two of those turnovers, struggled against the Chiefs’ defense, which ranked second in most statistical categories behind the Ravens’ unit.
Sometimes football is simple. It’s about experience and execution. The Chiefs did plenty of that with a well-composed approach to return to the Super Bowl.
I’m not a fan of a team going all in on one coaching candidate. But there are exceptions, and it’s why I have many mixed feelings about the Rooney Rule requirements, which I explain a little more below.
But the Los Angeles Chargers were right to put all their eggs in the Jim Harbaugh basket. Even with Bill Belichick available, Harbaugh seemed like the best candidate because of his impeccable track record of turning programs into winners, most recently with helping the University of Michigan win a national championship a few weeks ago.
The Chargers went for the best and didn’t miss. They now have the attention of Los Angeles and the football public as serious players. And maybe the Spanos family no longer has to hear jabs about them being frugal. But this wasn’t about gaining fans or changing narratives. This was about winning games and maximizing Justin Herbert’s career.
Who knows how many games the Chargers win next year. But based on Harbaugh’s impressive resume, Herbert & Co. will likely win sooner rather than later.
The Carolina Panthers tabbing Dave Canales as their next head coach came as a surprise because many assumed team owner David Tepper would give Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson an offer he couldn’t refuse. If Canales was the Panthers’ No. 2 option all along and moved quickly on him after realizing Johnson wasn’t interested, then who cares, because this was the best case scenario for Bryce Young, the team’s 2023 No. 1 pick.
Yes, Johnson helped Jared Goff revive his career in Detroit. But Canales has also been successful in getting the most from quarterbacks in need of help, and did it for two different teams—first with Geno Smith in Seattle as the quarterbacks coach and this past season with Baker Mayfield as the offensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Canales was also a longtime assistant under Pete Carroll and helped with the development of Russell Wilson. With that type of resume and experience, Canales is the ideal fit to help Young reach his potential after a rough rookie season. Tepper got it right with Canales and Young should benefit greatly from it.
Defensive coaches and minority coaches
I’m usually pessimistic this time of year because many well-qualified minority coaches, especially the ones from the defensive side, often get overlooked. Others solely—and sadly—get head coaching interviews to check off a requirement from the flawed Rooney Rule system.
It bothered me to occasionally see, “X team is now Rooney Rule compliant and can now hire so and so.” But this coaching cycle has given me hope for real change in the NFL because at least four out of the eight head coaching vacancies were filled by minorities with extensive qualifications. Las Vegas’s Antonio Pierce, New England’s Jerod Mayo and Atlanta’s Raheem Morris are Black and all have defensive backgrounds. And Canales is Mexican American, making him the fifth head coach of Latino descent in NFL history, joining Ron Rivera, Brian Flores, Tom Flores and Tom Fears.
Dan Campbell’s success in Detroit is forcing teams to stop favoring offensive play-callers, who are often white, and to pay more attention to strong leaders, who are capable of providing input in many phases and don’t mind allowing coordinators and assistant coaches to help in areas of weaknesses. Mayo and Pierce have similar qualities as Campbell and their respective teams saw that first-hand before promoting them from within. Morris had a similar benefit due to his six years in Atlanta before leaving to become the Rams’ defensive coordinator.
Hopefully in the near future external candidates with similar qualities and backgrounds get fair opportunities to prove themselves. There’s still a long way to go, but this was a refreshing coaching cycle when it comes to fair and equal opportunities.
It’s hard to criticize the Lions for going for it twice on fourth down because that’s what got them to their first NFC title game in over three decades. But maybe offensive coordinator Ben Johnson could have called different plays, if we want to nitpick.
The first failed fourth down was a pass to Josh Reynolds, not Sam LaPorta or Amon-Ra St. Brown, the two players who have been clutch all season for Goff. The Lions did call St. Brown’s number on the second fourth down, but Goff was pressured away from the pocket and rushed to throw.
Detroit could have also gotten their two running backs, David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs, involved in the gotta-have-it situations. The Lions did plenty right, but similar to the Ravens, their inexperience compared to their opponents showed at the worst times Sunday.
Baltimore kept it close, but its seven-point loss to the Chiefs didn’t tell the whole story.
The Ravens lacked experience and it showed, as the offense failed to sustain drives and the defense struggled to keep track of Kelce, who gained most of his 116 receiving yards in the first half. Baltimore was flat, tense and lost its composure at times.
The Ravens will learn from their first AFC title game appearance in 12 years, but they’ll need to add more weapons for Jackson, who flourished in the regular season during his first season with offensive coordinator Todd Monken. Baltimore will need to add a reliable workhorse running back and another productive wide receiver, and it might need to revamp the offensive line due to in-house free agents and uncertainty at the tackle spots.
Baltimore is in better shape on the defensive side, but they’ll need to pay defensive tackle Justin Madubuike and could lose defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, who’s in the running for a few head coaching jobs.
For the first time in a very long time, Bill Belichick might not be coaching for an NFL team in 2024 after the Falcons decided to hire Morris.
Perhaps Belichick’s age of 71 and outdated coaching methods hurt him this coaching cycle despite having far and away the most accomplished resume. Also, giving Belichick plenty of control with personnel decisions could have played a factor in Atlanta. Unless Belichick cuts back on his demands and is able to convince a team to take a chance on him for two to three years, he might not return to the sidelines in 2025, either.
It’s starting to look like Mike Vrabel will also get shut out from landing a head coaching position this year.
Vrabel, 48, is one of the game’s best leaders, excels with game management in crunch time and often has physical teams on both sides of the ball. But his firing from the Tennessee Titans might have come as a surprise to many.
The Chargers probably didn’t anticipate to see Vrabel available after locking in on Harbaugh. It also didn’t help that the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles decided to retain Mike McCarthy and Nick Sirianni, respectively.
Vrabel will likely land a head coaching job in the near future, but he might have to wait until 2025. The Seattle Seahawks and Washington Commanders still have openings. But Dan Quinn or Macdonald might be the pick in Seattle and Johnson appears to be the favorite in Washington.