The San Francisco 49ers seemed on their way to winning Super Bowl LIV. But like the Dallas Cowboys, they abandoned their identity when it mattered most.
If you’ve paid close attention to the Dallas Cowboys offensive plays over the past four years, you’ve likely recognized a tendency to abandon the run game in opponents’ territory. Former offensive coordinator Scott Linehan loved to do it. He reminded me of the coach in Varsity Blues who used his running back to get into scoring position but refused to let him enter the endzone.
However, during the 2019 season, the Cowboys’ coaches appeared overly determined to prove the team could rid quarterback Dak Prescott’s arm into the playoffs despite having a two-time NFL rushing champion in the backfield.
During this year’s Super Bowl, I was fully prepared to write about how the San Francisco 49ers exemplified a team that could win a title with a solid running game and a powerful defense. Then the 49ers suddenly turned into the Cowboys. It was as if Linehan had snuck into the coaches’ booth during pregame festivities.
The 49ers averaged 144.1 yards rushing per game during the regular season. Not one of their backs rushed for more than 1,000 yards. Three running backs had over 500 rushing yards each (Tevin Coleman—544, Raheem Mostert—772, Matt Breida—623).
In the divisional championship win against the Minnesota Vikings, San Francisco rushed for 186 yards, passing for only 122. In the NFC Championship win over the Green Bay Packers, the Niners ran for a whopping 285 yards to only 69 yards passing.
On their first drive of Super Bowl LIV, the 49ers reached the Kansas City Chiefs 25 yard-line on six plays (five rushes for 46 yards, one pass for 11 yards). Linehan must have snatched the offensive coordinator’s mic about that time. A Kansas City penalty allowed San Francisco four offensive plays before settling for a field goal. All four were pass plays netting zero yards.
On their next possession, San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo had three straight pass attempts (a completion for 18 yards, another completion for -2 yards, and an interception). At this point, Cowboys fans could empathize with 49ers fans. Why would the Niners not be running the ball? In their first five carries, they netted 46 yards on the ground. What happened to the play calling?
San Francisco ultimately returned to the run game, and even Garoppolo benefited from its success as Kansas City had to adjust to outside runs helping Niners receivers get open. By the fourth quarter, the 49ers were winning 20-10.
Until Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes completed a miracle pass for 44 yards on third and 15, it seemed like the 49ers were minutes away from decorating the Lombardi Trophy with their sweaty fingerprints. Kansas City finished that drive with a touchdown, squeezing the lead to three points. And San Francisco panicked.
In the final six minutes of the game, the 49ers abandoned what got them to the Super Bowl. In fact, they gave up their only chance of keeping Mahomes off the field. After a five-yard rush to start San Francisco’s drive, Garoppolo threw two incompletions.
The quick three-and-out put a tired defense back on the field to face perhaps the game’s most exciting late-game slinger. Mahomes quickly led his team to another touchdown and a four-point lead.
San Francisco began its next drive with a 17-yard run. The running game was retired from there. Garoppolo would complete two passes for 8 and 16 yards before throwing three incompletions and getting sacked on fourth down. The Super Bowl was as lost to San Francisco as its identity.
Kansas City caused the Tennessee Titans the same panic two weeks prior during the AFC Championship Game. Like San Francisco, Tennessee had a dominant run game, rushing for an average of 138.9 yards per game. They entered the AFC Championship after defeating the New England Patriots in the Wild Card round with 201 rushing yards (71 passing) and the Baltimore Ravens in the Divisional round on 217 rushing yards (83 passing).
Down 21-17 at halftime against Kansas City, 2019 NFL rushing champion Derrick Henry only received three touches in the second half. He ran 16 times for 67 yards in the first half. Fully on the arm of Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill, Tennessee lost 35-24.
Of course, Cowboys fans know all too well what it’s like having an NFL rushing champion neglected in the backfield when it matters most. In 2019, the running game all but disappeared when America’s Team played opponents with a winning record.
Prior to the Week 15 matchup against the Los Angeles Rams, however, former Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett vowed more focus on the run game. The Boys mauled Los Angeles in a 44-21 victory, infusing fans with one last surge of hope for making the postseason. Then, the run game disappeared once again in a must-win matchup the following week. They lost to the Philadelphia Eagles, who would win the NFC East Division the following week.
As it turns out, the 49ers and Titans are just additional examples of what-might-have-been if they had the courage to maintain their identity in the face of adversity. At this point, the difference between them and the Cowboys is 12 to 14 spots in the draft.