As the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LVIII drew to a close and the coin was tossed before overtime, San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan faced a decision no NFL coach had ever faced.
Whether to receive the overtime kickoff under the NFL’s new postseason overtime rules.
By now you probably know the backstory. In the wake of the AFC Divisional Round game a few seasons ago between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Buffalo Bills — which saw Patrick Mahomes need just 13 second to force overtime, which the Chiefs won by scoring a touchdown on the first possession after winning the coin toss — the league changed the postseason playoff rules, guaranteeing each team a possession.
Shanahan elected to receive, and start on offense. As he noted following the loss, he had his reasons, and they were rooted in the numbers.
“It’s just something we talked about,” Shanahan said following Super Bowl LVIII. “None of us have a ton of experience with it. But we went through all the analytics and talked to those guys. We just thought it would be better. We wanted the ball third. If both teams matched and scored, we wanted to be the ones who had the chance to go win. Got that field goal, so knew we had to hold them to at least a field goal, and if we did, then we thought it was in our hands after that.”
At first blush, the notion of “wanting the ball third” seems rather outlandish. But there was at least some data to back that up. When the rule change was announced, Brian Burke, who has been at the forefront of the analytics movement for years, dove into thousands upon thousands of scenarios.
In his analysis, going first gave you a slight — slight — advantage.
To get his full analysis you can click the above link, which I would recommend as Burke provides extensive analysis. He also makes it clear that we would need “eons of seasons to actually observe the advantage.”
Well, we now have one real-world example.
And it might shift the analysis a bit.
In the end, it comes down to information. The team that starts first does have the hypothetical advantage of starting the “sudden death” portion of overtime with the football, with the first chance to win just with a score. This is what Shanahan was referring to when saying they wanted to “go third.” Had the San Francisco defense held Kansas City to a field goal, the game would have been tied at 22, and the 49ers could have won with a Jake Moody field goal, denying Mahomes a second possession of his own.
That may give you a slight advantage. But what we now know from Super Bowl LVIII is that first, the Chiefs were planning on going for two had the 49ers scored a touchdown. So in a hypothetical scenario where the 49ers scored a touchdown on their drive and Moody gave them a seven-point lead with the PAT, the 49ers would not have seen the ball again. Either their defense would have held KC without a touchdown, their defense would have stopped the two-point conversion, or they would have lost when the Chiefs finished their scoring drive with a successful two-point try.
So when the Chiefs started their possession, they had more information available to them.
The other point is this: By going second you, in essence, give yourself an extra down. What I mean by that is this. When the 49ers started their drive, they began at their own 25-yard line. If they had faced a 4th and 1 a few plays later at their own 34-yard line, they faced a tough decision. Do you go for it deep in your own territory? Make it and you’ve still got a chance to win. Get stopped, and you probably just lost.
The Chiefs were in a much different position. By going second, and facing a deficit, they were instantly in four-down territory. Your mindset changes as an offense, and as a play-caller. You know you have four downs to pick up a first down, and can play accordingly.
This is what ended up happening. The Chiefs faced that exact “4th and 1 at their own 34” scenario, and had no choice but to go for it. After they picked that up with a Mahomes run, the very next play resulted in a loss of three.
But the Chiefs knew they still had three downs to pick up the 13 yards. So Mahomes’ next throw was not an attempt to “get it all back,” but rather a throw underneath to get Kansas City into a manageable third-down situation.
Heading into Super Bowl LVIII, the numbers may have given Shanahan’s decision to receive a slight advantage. But as Burke himself noted, that advantage diminished when the second team went for two — as the Chiefs were planning to do — and we still needed to see real-world application of the rules to adjust expectations.
What Super Bowl LVIII showed is that there is an advantage to going second. First, if you decide to go for two in a touchdown-PAT-touchdown scenario, you win or lose with your offense on the field. That is a situation most NFL teams in the modern era would likely prefer. Second, you have more information available to you, as you know what score you need to do to win the game. Third, you steal that extra down, which changes your mindset as an offense and a play-caller.
Finally, there is perhaps one other thing to mention.
Numbers might have to go out the window when facing Mahomes.