At long last, Super Bowl LIV is here.
The week leading up to the big game is always a whirlwind for teams, but at the same time they have fought to maintain a sense of normalcy despite having to prepare in unfamiliar settings while also juggling additional obligations.
Andy Reid is making his third Super Bowl appearance (second as a head coach), but he said he’s still soaking in the moment and working as usual to prepare his Kansas City Chiefs players to play at a high level. He’s not going to change anything with his approach, however, he said.
“You share everything you can with your guys and let the chips fall where they may,” he said.
Reid is still looking for that first Super Bowl trophy — he has the most wins (207 in the regular season) of any coach without a title — and the admiration his players have for him is evident as they spoke throughout the week. They badly want this year to be the squad that gives him his first ring, quarterback Patrick Mahomes said.
Kyle Shanahan has said the same thing about working hard to treat this like any other week. But he’s doing everything he can to prepare his team. After Saturday’s walkthrough, the 49ers bused over to Hard Rock Stadium. Shanahan took his players to the locker room, so they were familiar with all of their surroundings. He also has coached them up regarding the halftime break. He wants his players hydrating and stretching for the first 15 minutes, and then at the 13-minute mark, they’ll begin their normal halftime routines.
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And now, it’s time to share other notes from the days leading up to tonight’s tilt:
• The 49ers offense features a diverse cast of playmakers, but none strikes more fear into the heart of Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo than tight end George Kittle does.
“I was just in the waiting room, watching a highlight film, having nightmares,” Spagnuolo said on Opening Night. “I’ve gotta wait five days before this thing. This guy, he’s a tight end, right? Most tight ends typically in the NFL are not blocking tight ends, and we say that our defensive ends in the 4-3 should win every one of those battles. This guy is different. He’s a hell of a blocker, and combine that with his skills out on the perimeter as a pass-catcher. Plus, he’s an elite competitor. You can tell that just listening to him talking. He’s going to be a heck of a challenge for us. Tight ends always are. It’s different than putting a wideout on the perimeter and saying, ‘Oh, we can double that guy.’ It’s not as easy with a tight end to do it to when they also run the football. He’s just tenacious.”
• Safety Tyrann Mathieu spent the first five seasons of his career in Arizona, then played for Houston in 2018 and signed with Kansas City this year. But the Honey Badger almost immediately emerged as one of the leaders of the Chiefs defense, thanks in part to strong communication skills. Spagnuolo says he’s never come across a player quite like Mathieu, not only because of his fierce competitive fire, but also because of his ability to connect with every one of his teammates.
“What you see on the field is only half of what you see that he does for our football team,” Spagnuolo said. “Michael Strahan was a little like this. There are only certain special guys that have this kind of quality … He’s not the most vocal guy in the world, but when he has to speak up, he does. … Players always gravitate to him. It’s not easy to go in and talk with linemen, then linebackers, then DBs because they’re all different kinds of people, but Tyrann has the ability to do that.”
• Shanahan grew up loving sports, but he said his idols always changed depending on the season, the sport, or even the day or phase of his life. He cited Michael Jordan, Jerry Rice, John Elway, Terrell Davis and Ed McCaffrey. “But the one that was consistent was always my dad,” he said of his father, Mike Shanahan, who won two Super Bowl’s with the Denver Broncos. “He was always in football and always the guy I look up to the most.”
Shanahan said he remembers being 5 years old and leaving a group of kids playing in the backyard to watch football with his mom and her guests because he wanted to see how his dad’s team was doing.
“Denver’s ’86 drive against Cleveland, I can still remember watching it and then when I started leaving the babysitters to actually go to the games,” Shanahan said. “Remember trying as hard as I could to play it. I had a huge goal of playing in college, and was able to do that. but once I realized I wasn’t good enough to play anymore, I realized the way to go was get into coaching and it was way more fun coaching, so I guess it was more in my genes to coach than play.”
• Terrell Suggs is still new to the Chiefs, but he has quickly fit in because he says the culture in Kansas City reminds him very much of the one prevalent with Baltimore Ravens, for whom he played the first 16 years of his career. He said he believes John Harbaugh having played for Reid has a lot to do with that.
• Raheem Mostert bounced around six different teams before finally sticking in San Francisco, and a big reason why was his special teams play. After evaluating him in a few practices, special teams coordinator Richard Hightower told Shanahan that Mostert was the best gunner that he had seen, and Shanahan started watching and agreed. Eventually, the coaches decided to insert him into the running back rotation, “and it seemed like he always averaged six yards a play,” Shanahan said. “You do that too many times, and you start feelings stupid as a coach for not giving him too many opportunities, so we did and he’s keeping his average up there and he’s a big reason why we’re here.”
• For a team that has reached the playoffs just twice in the last decade, the Washington Redskins certainly are well represented in the Super Bowl. Shanahan, Hightower, running backs coach Bobby Turner, run game coordinator Mike McDaniel, tight ends coach Jon Embree, and offensive assistant Bobby Slowik all were members of Mike Shanahan’s coaching staff in Washington from 2010-13. Meanwhile, the Chiefs’ roster features three former Redskins: cornerbacks Kendall Fuller (2016-17) and Bashaud Breeland (2014-17) and center Austin Reiter (2015-16).
• Not a day went by without Kobe Bryant coming up in some form or fashion. At times, players were asked about the former Los Angeles Lakers star’s death. Other times, players brought him up on their own. Embree, when discussing the approach that he and Kittle take to his development, quoted Bryant, saying, “Kobe said, ‘If you enjoy the process and the journey and don’t worry about the end result or the dream, that is the dream. It’s going through all that.’ That’s what it is, and finding guys that are like-minded like that allows that player to have success.”
Chiefs and 49ers players repeatedly referenced the lessons they gleaned from Bryant’s example. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said that the league will honor Bryant in some form during the Super Bowl.
• Things were relatively quiet on the collective bargaining agreement negotiation front this week, although talks remain ongoing. Goodell declined to reveal how close or far apart the two sides are, and NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith did as well. However, NFLPA executive committee members Michael Thomas of the New York Giants, Benjamin Watson of the New England Patriots and Russell Okung of the Los Angeles Chargers revealed that there’s a great deal of hesitation on the players’ parts about expanding to 17 games because of the health and safety risks an additional week would subject players to. They also said that there’s a strong push to change the drug policy to enable the use of marijuana for pain relief, which they view as a safer option than opioids.
• The NFL’s investigation of the Patriots’ videotaping of the Cincinnati Bengals’ sideline remains ongoing, and Goodell said he’s not going to rush to judgement. “Our responsibility is to make sure we’re being extremely thorough. We have a responsibility to 31 other clubs, a responsibility to our partners and a responsibility to our fans to understand all of what happened,” Goodell said.
• Asked about the league’s ongoing problem regarding the scarcity of minority head coaches and front office officials after another frustrating hiring cycle for candidates of color, Goodell said, “Clearly, we’re not where we want to be.” He also noted discussions are ongoing about how to strengthen the Rooney Rule and create legitimate growth opportunities for coaching candidates of color. Goodell also said, “We believe diversity makes us better as a league.” Judging by his staff at the league offices, that certainly seems to be the case as both minorities and women hold numerous high-ranking positions. However, there certainly seems to be a disconnect between the Goodell and the owners. Goodell didn’t share details of those discussions and potential solutions to promote better diversity hiring practices, however.