49ers' Kyle Shanahan addresses ghosts of 28-3: 'I was very hard on myself'

Kimberley A. Martin
Senior NFL writer

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — To be honest, Kyle Shanahan doesn’t think much about that night. Not anymore. Not the way you do.

Sure, he has gone over the painstaking details, considered different scenarios, alternate outcomes. But he doesn’t view, or critique, his last Super Bowl appearance like the masses.

Three years have passed since that epic collapse on the game’s greatest stage. But Shanahan’s perspective on his final moments coaching on the Falcons’ sideline — and his team’s unfathomable failure to seal a victory with a 28-3 advantage over the Patriots — hasn’t really changed. And so now, as he prepares the San Francisco 49ers for their own moment in the sun, Shanahan isn’t thinking about the past. Or his potential shot at redemption.

“Not much at all anymore, to tell you the truth,” he said Monday afternoon, less than 24 hours after the 49ers vanquished the Green Bay Packers in the NFC championship game and punched their ticket to Miami for a Super Bowl LIV showdown against Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs on Feb. 2.

The 2016 Falcons appeared well on their way to victory in Super Bowl LI, holding a commanding third-quarter lead over the Patriots. But in the final stages of the game against future Hall of Famer Tom Brady, Atlanta wilted and New England mounted a 25-point comeback, the largest in Super Bowl history. 

Atlanta lost 34-28 in overtime. And Shanahan, the Falcons offensive coordinator at the time, bore the brunt of the blame.

San Francisco's Kyle Shanahan is in his first Super Bowl as a head coach. His last Super Bowl visit was as Atlanta's offensive coordinator in 2017. He maintains that running the ball wouldn't have made the difference in that infamous loss. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

“The days after were real tough,” said Shanahan, who would be named the 49ers head coach the very next day. “Losing a Super Bowl is extremely tough for everybody, especially when you lose one when you have a 28-3 lead going into the fourth. The way it came down on me personally, I didn’t react to that, I think, the way people would expect because there were definitely parts in that Super Bowl that I would love to have back and stuff. 

“I was very hard on myself, but the whole narrative of if I would’ve just ran it, we would’ve won. I know that wasn’t the case. I know what went into that game and all the stuff that happened, so that stuff didn’t bother me. You’ve got to deal with that and listen to other people, but it was nice to be able to move on and move out here and just keep working. I’m glad I’m going to get the chance to go back.”

Running the football won’t be a question for the 49ers, of course.

San Francisco — which had the No. 2 rushing attack behind Baltimore during the regular season and finished with a league-high 23 rushing touchdowns — steamrolled opponents with a three-headed attack. And in Sunday’s conference championship, running back Raheem Mostert shouldered the load, racking up 220 yards on the ground and rushing for four touchdowns to pace the 49ers to a win over the Packers.

By halftime, Mostert had scored three times and San Francisco held a 27-0 lead over Green Bay. But Shanahan learned a long time ago that no lead is ever truly safe. 

Although the deficit was too great for the Packers to ultimately overcome, they did pull to within 34-20 in the fourth. 

“We only had a 14-point lead with eight minutes to go versus Green Bay,” Shanahan said. “I can promise you that, I feel from experience like the game is tied and that we don’t have a two-score lead. I think that’s the stuff that helps you because, sometimes I think people can tend to relax. I won’t say I ever relaxed in that Super Bowl, [especially with] Tom Brady having that ball, but that’s something that keeps you humble at every single moment until the game is over.”

That Super Bowl week in Houston is memorable for another reason. 

During media night, Shanahan temporarily “lost” his Falcons playbook when a San Francisco-based sportswriter picked up the coach’s book bag by mistake.

“I had almost a panic attack,” Shanahan said Monday, reliving the anxiety of that Monday night at Minute Maid Park. “All you guys were huddled around me and distracting me, setting me up while he could take it. No, it was right between my legs, I was sitting on the top part of a chair and it was between my legs. Then, when I was done talking to everybody, it wasn’t there anymore. There was a backpack there, but it wasn’t mine. He took mine and left his, but I was panicked, not because of the game plan or anything. … I had about 48 Super Bowl tickets in there that I bought for family members and everything. I was carrying a lot of money from that, a lot of I.O.U.’s and stuff.”

The ordeal lasted about an hour and a half. Eventually, the reporter was located, as was Shanahan’s backpack. 

“They tried to take it off of him and he wouldn’t give it to me, at first, until I showed him it was mine.”

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