SANTA CLARA - With 8 minutes and 31 seconds left in the third quarter of Super Bowl 51, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to Tevin Coleman.
Seven months later, this is relevant to Bay Area sports. Why? Because Kyle Shanahan’s teams have not scored a touchdown since. The Falcons had four additional possessions against the New England Patriots last February and failed to score. And Sunday at Levi’s Stadium, the 49ers got their mitts on the ball 10 times and, as you can probably gather from the final score, did not reach the end zone in a 23-3 loss to the Carolina Panthers. It was the worst home defeat ever for this franchise in Week 1.
Since Coleman’s touchdown, the Shanahans have punted seven times, turned it over on downs three times, lost two fumbles, thrown one interception and kicked a field goal (courtesy of Robbie Gould in the third quarter Sunday).
Quite a stretch for the guy some have called the premier offensive strategist in the NFL.
Granted, different factors were at work in the two games. In February, when Shanahan was Atlanta’s offensive coordinator, he was going against Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots, one of the great dynasties of NFL history. A lot of teams have come up empty in that situation.
The 49ers had no such excuse. The Panthers were 6-10 a year ago, and they didn’t look particularly magnificent Sunday. San Francisco’s piddling 3-point output was more a result of its own shortcomings. Compared with the team Shanahan left behind in Atlanta, this one has the pyrotechnic capability of a toaster oven.
Start with the quarterback, Brian Hoyer. He isn’t terrible. Just meh. Which is pretty much what everyone figured when he arrived as a stop-gap free agent. Hoyer looked solid against the Panthers in the first half. But his second pass after halftime was behind tight end George Kittle, who was crossing right to left, and into the hands of Luke Kuechly, Carolina’s all-pro linebacker. Kuechly picked it off at midfield and ran to the 49ers’ 23. Five plays later, Cam Newton threw a 9-yard touchdown pass to running back Jonathan Stewart to give the visitors a 20-0 lead.
“We thought he would go the other way, based on his previous times playing and his smarts,” Hoyer said of Kuechly. “Usually he would drop onto the receiver instead of the tight end.”
Hoyer was far from the only culprit. Seven minutes into the game, on the 49ers’ first possession, the quarterback threw a deep ball that settled right into Marquise Goodwin’s arms — and slipped right out. It’s an image you might not have seen for the last time. Goodwin is one of the fastest players in the NFL. He’s also an inconsistent catcher of footballs.
The point is that Shanahan might be a genius of Xs of Os, but when your Os aren’t as good as the other guy’s Xs, you’re probably in trouble. And nowhere is this alphabetical discrepancy of the 49ers’ more obvious than in the middle of their offensive line.
The Panthers sacked Hoyer four times and hit him eight times, and you could argue that he occasionally contributed to his demise by holding the ball too long. What’s beyond debate is that the 49ers line didn’t protect him or the San Francisco running backs very well. More specifically, the interior linemen were ineffective.