By Howard Balzer
In a National Football League season accentuated by the performance of young quarterbacks, it is fitting that Super Bowl LIV will have at its center 28-year-old Jimmy Garoppolo of the San Francisco 49ers and 24-year-old Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs.
Virtually young pups to be sure.
However, the head coaches standing on opposite sidelines present an altogether different contrast. It’s similar to last year when Los Angeles Rams wunderkind Sean McVay went toe-to-toe with Bill Belichick, and lost to the master, 13-3.
This year, on the 49ers side of the field is Kyle Shanahan. He is called “Kyle” by his players not “coach,” wears hip caps during games, turned 40 in December and is only five years older than left tackle Joe Staley and three years older than kicker Robbie Gould.
Shanahan is in his third season as a head coach and his team’s 37-20 victory over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game enabled him to reach .500: 25-25 overall after the 49ers were 10-22 in the last two seasons.
Then, there is Andy Reid, cast as the stoic leader of the Chiefs. While he (and likely anyone else) will ever be considered in the same stratosphere as Belichick, Reid has been remarkably consistent through his 21 seasons as a head coach with the Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs.
He looks like your favorite science teacher on the sideline (that is if anyone actually has a favorite science teacher), and it’s difficult to imagine any of his players calling him “Andy” or seeing him wear a cap.
Reid will be 62 in March and there is no evidence of him slowing down. The Chiefs’ 35-24 win over the Tennessee Titans in the AFC Championship Game was the 221st of his career and there are only five in league history that have more: Don Shula, 347; George Halas, 324; Belichick, 304; Tom Landry, 270; and Curly Lambeau, 229.
His overall record of 221-142-1 represents a winning percentage of 60.9 and the game against the Titans was his seventh in a conference championship.
However, until his team wins a Super Bowl, there will be those that besmirch his overall record as if that is an easy goal to attain. This will be his second Super Bowl, having lost to the Patriots, 24-21, in Super Bowl XXXIX 15 years ago. Only three of those coaches mentioned above (Belichick, Shula and Landry) have been in more than Reid’s 29 playoff games (including Super Bowl LIV), and his team needs a victory to push his postseason record over .500 to 15-14.
Witnessing Reid hoisting the Lombardi Trophy will mean a lot to his coaches and players, Special teams coordinator Dave Toub has been with Reid in Philadelphia and Kansas City along with the University of Missouri and Texas-El Paso.
Asked what it would mean to him to see Reid and the Chiefs victorious in the Super Bowl, Toub said, “I’ve thought about this a lot. Nobody deserves it more than Andy. He’s such a great coach. To not have a Super Bowl win under his belt – this would be huge. I don’t know if I’d stop crying with him. I’d probably hug him forever. I’m just so proud of what he’s done and everything he’s done in his career and he needs that. He needs this. He needs that.”
Mahomes, when it was asked if he would be happier for his head coach than himself, said, “Probably be happier for him for sure. I think I’ll be pretty happy too for myself.”
Reid was non-plussed by the question. “Listen, you’ve known me for a long time,” he said. “I think more about the players than I am sitting here thinking about myself and all of that. That’s not where I go. I try to get the guys ready. I try to make sure that I’m ready and then go play. I don’t look at it that way. I look more at the disappointment for the other teams that I’ve been able to coach and how those kids felt, because they worked their tails off for that amount of time, and the other coaches.”
Amid that backdrop come two teams from opposite directions. One (San Francisco) that was 4-12 in 2018 and the other (Kansas City) that lost in heartbreaking fashion in overtime in the AFC Championship Game.
Introduce yourself, Raheem Mostert. He sure did that to the Packers. After a regular season in which he led the 49ers in rushing with 772 yards, Mostert exploded for 220 yards on 29 attempts and scored four touchdowns, one for 36 yards. San Francisco ranked second in the NFL in rushing, and while the Chiefs were 26th against the run, they have gotten steadily better as they became comfortable in the first season with coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s system.
The Chiefs held Titans running back Derrick Henry to 13 attempts for 69 yards and in the second half he had just seven yards on three carries. Most important, there were no back-breaking runs like Henry had on Nov. 10 when he rushed for 188 yards with a 68-yard touchdown in a win over the Chiefs. In the AFC Championship, his long run was 13 yards.
As Mostert gashed the Packers, Garoppolo kept handing off, especially as their lead grew and he completed 6 of 8 passes for 77 yards all game. Mahomes often does that in one possession.
Kansas City doesn’t run a lot, but when they do, Damien Williams is effective. While he had only 45 rushing yards on 17 attempts against Tennessee, he added five receptions for 44 yards.
Breaking the back of the Titans was Mahomes tucking and running. He did that eight times for 53 yards, and his 27-yard touchdown gave the Chiefs their first lead at 21-17 with 11 seconds remaining in the first half after having trailed 10-0 and 17-7.
No lead is safe against Kansas City as was seen in their 51-31 dismantling of Houston, so 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh won’t have much time to celebrate as he looks for ways to withstand Mahomes and his plethora of weapons.
During the regular season, the 49ers allowed just 281.8 yards (second in the league) per game, 169.2 passing yards (first), 4.7 yards per play (second) and 19.4 points (eighth).
They stoned the Vikings in their first playoff win, allowing 147 total yards (3.3 yards per play) and 21 yards rushing on 10 attempts. While Green Bay managed 358 yards, most came in the second half after San Francisco built its 27-0 halftime lead.
In the first half, the Packers totaled 93 yards on 25 plays (3.7 average) and quarterback Aaron Rodgers completed 9 of 12 passes for 65 yards and a 52.4 passer rating.
Shanahan said, “It’s a challenge to go against our defense in any aspect. The way our rush is and stuff, that’s why it is a little bit harder to throw, especially with our coverages. But, it’s very tough to run the ball against, too. We’ve got good players up front, we’ve got very good linebackers and we have a scheme that can get us in an eight-man front at any time.”
There will likely be little need for eight-man fronts against Kansas City, so Saleh will try and figure out a way to have his players somehow make Mahomes look mortal.
That’s obviously a daunting task. Consider:
*Mahomes has now played 31 regular-season games and four in the playoffs.
*In the regular season, he has completed 65.9 percent of his passes for 9,412 yards (303.6 per game and 8.56 yards per attempt) with 76 touchdowns and 18 interceptions for a 108.9 passer rating.
*With the stakes higher in the postseason, Mahomes hasn’t been affected. The completion percentage is 62.7 with 1,188 yards (297.0 per game and 8.37 per attempt) with 11 touchdown passes and no interceptions with a passer rating over 115.
*Combine them all together and Mahomes is at 65.5 percent passing with 10,600 yards (302.8 per game and 8.54 per attempt) with 87 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
The reality is that the “best laid plans” can go awry thanks to Mahomes’ innate ability to have defenders and game-watchers shaking their heads.
Said Reid, “All of the wrist and throwing from different angles, I think some of that is baseball. That helps. He played a lot more baseball than he did football early. He knows all of those release points and what he can get away with from those spots.”
Concluded tight end Travis Kelce, who stated simply, “He can play the game. A lot of it is in preparation and a lot of it is just natural instincts that he’s been able to build over the course of his life. He’s very confident in how he plays the game and he’s very free in how he plays the game. At the same time, every Monday that comes around, he’s in the film room, he’s in Coach Reid’s ear and the offensive staff’s ear trying to figure out what’s the game plan so he always has an answer for what the defense is throwing at us.”
The 49ers will try to find their own answer on Feb. 2. The chess game between a relentless 49ers defense and what Mahomes and his offensive cohorts are capable of should make for a Super Bowl for the ages.
(This story will appear as part of a special Chiefs Super Bowl preview magazine published by Lindy’s. Available in stores throughout Missouri Jan. 23, it can also be purchased by calling 205-871-1182)