With Super Bowl LVIII between the 49ers and Chiefs approaching, bettors are only too willing to discuss the players for each team, and while players decide games on the field, they play for coaches who put them in position to succeed – or to fail.
We just received a reminder of how important coaching is when the talented Detroit Lions, whose players were better overall than San Francisco’s, lost the NFC Championship game as a result of decisions made by their head coach.
So, in deciding our best bets for this game, we cannot neglect the importance of coaching. Both teams do have terrific head coaches and coordinators. What will be most helpful for bettors will be to identify what stands out about each team’s coaching staff.
The Importance of Clock Management
Clock management refers to a coach’s ability, when his team has the ball, to manage the clock especially in end-of-half and end-of-game situations but also in general. The goal is to maximize the chances that one’s own team scores while diminishing the ability of the opponent to score.
There are various strategies that you will see coaches employ. A more conservative coach, for example, run the clock all the way down and settle for a field goal attempt. A more aggressive coach will score perhaps too early, leaving the opposing team more time on the clock to put up points before the half ends.
Kyle Shanahan’s Clock Management
San Francisco’s head coach distinguishes himself from his Kansas City counterpart in that he is characteristically poor at clock management.
Take the Divisional Round between Green Bay and his 49ers as an example. The 49ers took possession on offense with just over four minutes left in the half. They started on their 25-yard-line. Just think that it’s called a “two-minute drill” for a reason.
Two minutes should be ample time for an offense to march up the field and score. Shanahan had four minutes. Plus he had all three timeouts to work with. Nevertheless, with just under 90 seconds left in the half, his team still only sat on Green Bay’s 46-yard-line.
Shanahan had already made up his mind to settle for a field goal, something that would be a dangerous decision to repeat given kicker Jake Moody‘s shakiness – Moody has missed three of his last six kicks.
Really, Shanahan should have been more aggressive. His conservative approach cost his team points, which helped result in a much closer game, a game that Green Bay won.
Kyle Shanahan’s Offensive Brilliance
The 49ers’ head coach is often touted as a genius, and he deserves this reputation. His offense’s stats this year attest to his successful input: the 49ers rank number one in total yards on offense and number two in points per game.
Shanahan’s genius lies in his ability to keep defenses guessing. He makes his offense unpredictable in several ways. One, he has his offense employ pre-snap motion about 80 percent of the time. When an offense lines up, the defense will try to process what it sees and decide accordingly how it will position itself to defend the offense’s upcoming play. By putting guys in motion, an offense can disrupt the defense’s ability to process.
A second major way in which he makes the 49ers’ offense unpredictable for defenses is that he runs a sort of positionless football. He might put wide receiver Deebo Samuel in the backfield as if he were a running back. He will also position running back Christian McCaffrey out wide or in the slot as if he were a running back.
This positionless component entails that defenses have less of an idea of what to expect from 49ers’ players – they ask themselves: will Deebo run the ball like a running back? will McCaffrey operate like a wide receiver? His players have the skill set to enact this level of versatility, and he puts them in position to succeed.
Purdy often has wide-open players to throw to because they are schemed open by his head coach, which he is able to do in part because his offense is harder for defenses to process.
Led by coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, the Chiefs’ defense is well-coached in its own right. So, as cappers trying to break down the coaching matchup for this game, what do we do when we have a matchup of offensive genius versus defensive mastermind?
The key statistic is this: under Spagnuolo, the Chiefs rank number one in sack rate. Their ability to apply pressure to Purdy will be decisive because Purdy, in Shanahan’s offense, is very much a rhythm quarterback who performs better when he doesn’t have to deal with pressure.
Spagnuolo excels at dialing up pressure by calling exotic plays that the offense would never expect. He makes use of the versatility of his defenders by, for example, frequently having a cornerback blitz. His strength seems to be in his dime package where he is most unpredictable for opposing offenses.
The Chiefs’ general ability on defense to make adjustments – as evident, for example, in their second-half response to Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen – attests to his flexibility. Spagnuolo prioritizes spontaneity over sticking to hard-and-fast concepts, to the extent that he will trust his players to execute things in games that they had never practiced.
I take Kansas City to have the advantage coaching-wise.
The 49ers are disadvantaged by Shanahan’s poor clock management skills, a difficulty that Chiefs head coach Andy Reid is able to use his future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Patrick Mahomes to navigate.
While Shanahan is an offensive genius, Spagnuolo has the ability to upset Brock Purdy’s equipoise with his pressure-generating know-how.
San Francisco’s defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, who feels compelled to call a lot of soft zone to make up for his vulnerable cornerbacks, and who can’t figure out how to stop the run in these playoffs, is not on Spagnuolo’s level.
Coaching-wise, in sum, the Chiefs have the advantage, pushing bettors in the direction of investing in a Kansas City victory in Super Bowl LVIII.