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Opinion: The Super Bowl proves why we harp on Sean McDermott’s clock management

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Buffalo Bills fans saw something familiar.

We have been vocal critics of Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott’s clock management in his time with the team. The end of the first half of Sunday’s Super Bowl is why we harp on this topic so much and it’s at least partially to blame for the San Francisco 49ers’ loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.

Let’s recap what 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan decided was a good thing to do at the end of the first half. With 1:53 left in the half and the score tied at 10-10, the 49ers’ defense stopped the Chiefs’ offense on 3rd and 14. With three timeouts left in the holster, Shanahan let the clock run all the way down. After the KC punt, San Fran had the ball with 59 seconds left.

So why would you let the clock run down instead of giving your offense 48 more seconds to drive the length of the field?

”They had three timeouts, and it was 10 to 10. The last thing we’re going to do there is allow them to get the ball with three timeouts left, especially with their quarterback and the offensive speed, and go down and score before half,” Shanahan said after the game. ”Felt good at 10-10, especially with us starting with the ball [in the third quarter].”

He was scared. He didn’t trust his own offense to even get a first down to keep the ball away from Patrick Mahomes. This is precisely WHY you try to score more points at the end of the first half—because Mahomes is so good. You know that ten points isn’t going to beat an explosive offense, so you should, ya know, try to score more when you have a chance.

At this point in the game, the 49ers had drives of 57 yards and 80 yards. They had proven they could move the ball, and with 1:45 left and two timeouts after the punt, their entire play book would have been available if they played their cards right.

Instead, they needed to rely on a big play—and it actually happened! A 20-yard pass moved San Francisco to their own 45-yard line. BUT THERE WERE ONLY 20 SECONDS LEFT. No room for error anymore. A beautiful pass and catch to George Kittle was called back on offensive pass interference, and the scoring opportunity was gone. On 1st and 20 with six seconds left, they took a knee.

San Francisco had an opportunity to score twice without Kansas City even possessing the ball, but they let it slip away. After the half, they scored on two straight drives to push their lead to 10 with 18 minutes left to play.

Playing it safe against explosive offenses almost always bites you in the back side. Because they can score on any play or gain chunks of yardage in a single throw, your defense needs to be perfect and even great defenses can’t be perfect on every snap. What Shanahan was saying when he let the clock run down is “I don’t trust the offense to hold onto the ball and I don’t trust the defense to hold them if they don’t.”

McDermott pulled a similarly boneheaded move in the Snowvertime game played in December of 2017. With Buffalo’s season hanging in the balance, McDermott punted in overtime. The Bills needed a win and not a tie. Here’s part of what I wrote after the game:

There is no doubt that the decision to punt to a team that had just held the ball for almost 11 minutes of the fourth quarter with only 4:07 remaining in overtime was the wrong one. McDermott, a first-year, first-time head coach got lucky and so did his team. Again, the Colts didn’t need to score to ruin Buffalo’s season. All they had to do was keep running the ball and kill clock.

The Bills’ coach learned from this and has become likelier to go for it than not in similar situations. McDermott was better about this in 2019. He understood that his defense is really talented and if the offense stumbles, the defense can pick them up. He went for it plenty of times on 4th and short and the offense rewarded them for the most part. His growth mindset is paying off, but it’s still not perfect.

In the Wild Card game against the Houston Texans, McDermott said he wanted to be aggressive at the end of the first half, but then they inexplicably blew it. Starting with five minutes left, the Bills moved the ball into Houston territory. With 1:17 left in the second quarter at the edge of kicker Stephen Hauschka’s range, they gained six yards on 2nd and 8 but let 40 seconds run off the clock. They converted the 3rd and 2 on the following play and called timeout with 30 seconds left. The next call was unbelievable.

A one-yard run to Frank Gore took 15 seconds off the clock before they could spike the ball. A long throw to Duke Williams was incomplete on third down and they kicked a field goal with nine seconds left on the clock. Instead of three shots at the end zone, the Bills managed one.

I’m not bringing this up to be critical again, but to show that—for his growth—McDermott and his team still have some work to do on situational football. Hopefully if McDermott is ever in the same situation as Shanahan, he’ll know to take his timeout to give his offense time to score. Hopefully if he needs to win a game, he doesn’t punt with four minutes left in a game where the team is running the ball down your throat. Hopefully if he’s ever in the same situation on 1st and 10 on the opponent’s 23 with 30 seconds and no timeouts, he doesn’t let the offensive coordinator hand it to his 36-year-old, between-the-tackles running back.