The 49ers botched the OT coin-toss & foolishly gave Patrick Mahomes the last word

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The ball rested at the Chiefs’ 34-yard line, an overtime scoreboard displaying a three-point deficit, with Kansas City facing fourth down and 1 yard to go in Super Bowl LVIII.

It was, potentially, the game.

As Patrick Mahomes broke the huddle Sunday night at Allegiant Stadium, the Chiefs instead decided to call timeout first. Why not make sure they had the play they wanted in this crucial situation against the San Francisco 49ers?

KC offensive coordinator Matt Nagy told me they reached agreement on the call, and when I asked what it was, he smiled and declined to provide its official name.

He offered this instead:

“Just give the ball,” he said, “to that guy.”

The design provided Mahomes an option — throw the ball to tight end Travis Kelce, who was running across the line of scrimmage, or just keep it himself. Mahomes had also told receiver Rashee Rice in the huddle that if his rub route wasn’t effective, just find an opening.

They didn’t need any of the secondary options. The running lane was wide open; Mahomes rushed for 8 and the Chiefs were on their way to a game-winning drive, among the most frantic of finishes in Super Bowl history.

Final score: Chiefs 25, 49ers 22.

That was the play,” Mahomes said of the fourth-down call.

It could’ve been a punt.

If the 49ers had just played the coin-toss correctly.

The Chiefs and 49ers had the privilege of introducing the NFL’s new overtime rules to a Super Bowl audience for the first time.

Maybe Niners coach Kyle Shanahan was learning about it for the first time, too, because he botched it before the period actually began.

The new setup guarantees each team a possession in overtime, even if the initial team scores a touchdown. If the two remain tied after they’ve each had a shot with the ball, the next score wins. So when the 49ers pegged the toss, Shanahan took the ball.

A mistake.

Here’s why: The decision guaranteed Mahomes would have the final say on the outcome of the game — you know, the kind of situation teams tend to avoid. Shanahan chose that path. Chose to cede control. Chose to put the game in the hands of Mahomes.

You know what happened.

“None of us have a ton of experience with it. We went through all of the analytics and talked to those guys and decided it would be better — we wanted the ball third,” Shanahan said. “If both teams scored, we wanted to be the ones who had the ball third.”

If the 49ers lacked experience with it, that’s on them. It’s not learning how to tackle better with the pads on. It’s not asking a quarterback to read a defense. It’s the equivalent of a mathematical equation. The homework is the experience.

By allowing the Chiefs to have the ball second, they ensured the Chiefs knew exactly how many points they needed once they got the ball. That’s about the most valuable information you can have in football, and the 49ers slipped it across the field to the opposing sideline.

By choice.

How did it change things? Well, return to the top of this column for the answer. The Chiefs knew they needed a field goal to extend the game or a touchdown to win it. So even on their own 34-yard line, they had to keep the offense on the field on fourth down. It produced seven points.

What if the Chiefs opened with the ball? Isn’t there reason to think they would have punted on fourth and 1 there, knowing if they had been stuffed, the 49ers would’ve taken over in field-goal range with a chance to win?

The Chiefs were faced with 11 fourth-and-1 situations this season, and they kicked (punt or field goal) on five of them. On two others, they went for it because they were down two scores late in the game. The game insisted they go for it, in other words. Which means four of the 11 came by choice. Those yard lines: the 16, 30, 36 and 48.

There’s plenty of reason, in that case, to have expected a punt there had the Chiefs opened overtime with the football. But the 49ers robbed them of that decision. They left the Chiefs with only one choice.

Give it to Mahomes.

They got what they asked for.

Let’s address the third possession possibility too, because Shanahan offered it as part of his rationale. Yes, there’s a chance that both teams match, and then the 49ers can take the ball with a chance to win the game.

But it’s highly unlikely. If the 49ers had opened with a touchdown, for example, and the Chiefs then responded with one of their own, they’d be fools not to go for 2 to win the game — knowing the extra point would allow the 49ers to possess the ball needing only a field goal to win. If the 49ers had gone scoreless, again, the Chiefs are sure to be more aggressive on their fourth-down calls, knowing the risks of returning the favor of a punt.

That all significantly trims the number of third possession scenarios — to use that as the priority is like prioritizing the best kicker in the upcoming draft. Sure, you’d love to have him. But at what cost?

The 49ers wouldn’t have been guaranteed to win the game had they elected to kick off. It will forever be a what-if. To make it more obvious, though, the Chiefs were planning to kick. When is the last time two teams met for a coin-toss with exact opposite decisions in mind? It didn’t matter which side of the coin landed face up.

Both teams, unfathomably, had the same plan.

To give Mahomes the last word.