Kyle Shanahan

How analytics experts evaluate Shanahan's Super Bowl OT decision

NBC Universal, Inc.

Super Bowl LVIII has come and gone, and the start of the NFL offseason has featured plenty of discussion about what the 49ers could have done to beat the Kansas City Chiefs.

Unsurprisingly, coach Kyle Shanahan's decision for San Francisco to receive the ball first in overtime still has people talking -- but was the feather-ruffling choice not so controversial after all?

Peter King of NBC Sports dove into the topic in his latest "Football Morning in America" column, seeking the opinion of several analytics experts to see if Shanahan's OT call really was a gamble.

"I understand one part of the criticism leveled at Shanahan about taking the ball to start overtime," King wrote. "Many of his players say they didn’t know the new overtime rules, and so if they’d scored a TD on the first possession, they could have gotten an unsportsmanlike penalty that would have shortened the field for Mahomes. That’s bad.

"But last week, I talked to one team analytics guy on background and to Keegan Abdoo of Next Gen Stats. Neither had a problem with Shanahan’s decision -- they both felt it was nearly a toss-up whether to take the ball or kick."

In taking the ball first, under the NFL's new overtime playoff rules, the 49ers gave the Chiefs to respond with a score of their own after San Francisco kicked a field goal to begin the extra quarter. The 49ers ultimately lost 25-22 after Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs scored a walk-off touchdown.

In the aftermath, Chiefs like Travis Kelce and others within the organization were befuddled by San Francisco's choice, as it let Kansas City know exactly what they needed to do on their ensuing possession in order to win, and, essentially, an extra down along the way.

After the loss, Shanahan explained analytics played a big role in the decision.

“We went through the analytics,” Shanahan said, “and we just decided we wanted the ball third.”

So, King asked a third analytics expert. The consensus was that Shanahan and the 49ers made a decision that might not have been foolish at all, despite the widespread outcry.

“I thought it was almost a tossup,” Mike McRoberts of Championship Analytics, who consults with five NFL teams, told King. “Gun to my head, I would have done what Kyle did. Whoever designed this rule did a good job, because the outcome should not be determined by the coin flip, and each team gets at least one full possession.

"It’s not gimmicky at all."

While it certainly makes Shanahan's decision easier to understand, expert opinions can't do anything to dull the pain of the 49ers losing yet another Super Bowl. And toss-up or not, the choice will be one the 49ers Faithful wrestle with all offseason long.

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