Few Falcons fans have entirely moved on from the Super Bowl all the way back in February 2017, given that it represents simultaneously the high water mark of the franchise we love and the absolute worst gut punch imaginable. Atlanta’s done us few favors in that regard, with one interesting if frustrating playoff run and three losing seasons following the game, but the reality is these kinds of games tend to stick with a fanbase until you they’re given a very compelling reason to pack it away. See Vikings fans, who are absolutely still smarting over their 1998 NFC Conference Championship Game loss to these Falcons, for an example of how the sting does not disappear with time.
Fans aren’t the only ones haunted by that game, as the players and coaches involved will always carry it with them in some form, either through impact to their reputations, the heavy wait of what if, or both. For Kyle Shanahan, who is trying to shake off the idea that his teams choke in Super Bowls and clearly has been turning a couple of key plays over in his head for years, it appears to be both.
Look, it’s a Thursday morning in July and you might not be fully awake yet, so seeing “Kyle Shanahan” and “Falcons Super Bowl” here might make you want to quietly close your browser and chuck your device out of the window of a moving car. But in his appearance with Peter Schrager and Sean McVay on the Flying Coach podcast, Shanahan expanded on his post-Super Bowl assessment that he “blew it” in a way that’s worth considering if you have the stomach for it. Schrager posted the relevant clip below.
I’m not sure we’ we ever heard Kyle Shanahan go through the final minutes and the play calling decisions of the Falcons Super Bowl loss to the Patriots.— Peter Schrager (@PSchrags) July 7, 2021
He does here.
And then McVay discusses Seattle’s decision to throw and not run w/ Marshawn on Malcolm Butler INT. @ringer pic.twitter.com/UZOSJ9HAnI
It is evident that Shanahan, for any jokes he might have made with one of the roots of his next Super Bowl loss, has not just shrugged off the loss. Here, he’s more reflective than I’ve heard him about the game and his role in it, taking Schrager and McVay through all the time he spent watching Tom Brady carve up the defense and how it made him itchy to put an end to the game.
“If we get this ball back, I’m not waiting. We gotta go,” he said.
Shanahan’s confidence in Julio Jones in particular and his offense more generally stands out here. Julio’s sideline grab keyed the drive, and after an unproductive run the Falcons were sitting at 2nd and 11 from the New England 23. It is at this point that Shanahan remembered an unproductive 2nd and 10 run on the previous drive, took stock of a field goal at the 23 not necessarily being a gimme, and decided to call a play designed for an “unstoppable” Julio Jones.
The thought process here is understandable—a touchdown would’ve put the game away with so little time left, and Julio had literally just made one of the finest catches in Super Bowl history—but the Patriots camped down hard on #11, “nobody was open,” and Matt Ryan was sacked for a 12 yard loss. Suddenly, Atlanta was on the edge of being out of field goal range and facing a long third down. The thought process behind the call was sound, especially in a vacuum, but Shanahan’s regret was instant.
“Oh my god, why did I just try and end it?” Shanahan remembers thinking.
The sack set up a situation where the Falcons had to throw the ball to get back into manageable field goal range, and they did...except a holding call Shanahan clearly didn’t think was a holding call on Jake Matthews wiped out a 9 yard Mohamed Sanu gain and the Falcons couldn’t get anything done on 3rd and 33 from the 5. We all know how things proceeded from there.
The decision to try to go to Julio on 2nd and 11 is the play that obviously keeps Shanahan up at night—”that one right there,” he calls it—even while McVay defends the sound thought process for the play calling and laments the holding call right after Shanny finishes talking. Given Shanahan’s confidence in both himself and his offense and given the seeming unlikeliness that this team would lose 22 yards in two plays, it’s hard to kill him for the decision-making, even if he’s both an easy scapegoat for it (every other major player in the loss was still with Atlanta the next year, remember) and he’s clearly never let himself off the hook, either.
What will always haunt me is the unwillingness to let a 38ish yard field goal decide the game. Shanahan wasn’t thinking worst case scenario—the sack, the holding call—because he had confidence his offense could get a touchdown or a chip shot field goal try and Brady’s effortless marching had made him eager to put it away. But Atlanta had one of the best kickers in football in Matt Bryant and less than 4 minutes left in the game, and while the attempt was by no means a gimme, Bryant had missed just one field goal since Week 10 of the regular season and was 7-8 from attempts inside 40 yards on the year. Simply getting an 11 point lead feels like it would’ve wrapped the game up, but we’re left with what happened, not the ghosts of what might have been.
In the end, Kyle Shanahan obviously isn’t solely responsible for the loss, any more than a lousy holding call on Jake Matthews or a missed Devonta Freeman block is. The blame for Atlanta’s loss lays heavy at the feet of an entirely gassed defense, but what rankles and will rankle for a very long time is that a different decision on one or two plays could’ve overcome even that collapse. It’s only a small comfort to know Falcons fans aren’t the only ones wishing they could re-run that 2nd and 10.