HOUSTON — A quick message to new 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan and all the other young, bright coaches out there: Degree of difficultly doesn't matter in football, even in the NFL.
Especially not when playing the Patriots.
The second-guessing of Shanahan's strategy in the fourth quarter of Atlanta's stunning and historic loss to New England on Sunday was widespread and obvious. At two critical moments, Shanahan did what many young, aggressive play-callers fall prey to doing: He fell in love with his own genius. And in the aftermath, he didn't seem too happy with the idea of admitting it.
The question now becomes whether Shanahan learns from this—or lets it nag at him for his career, a scarlet letter burned into his frontal lobe.
On both occasions, with Shanahan calling for pass plays in situations in which running the ball seemed logical and compelling, the results were disastrous.
On the first, quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked and fumbled the ball away on 3rd-and-1 from the Falcons' 36-yard line. The Patriots scored to make it 28-20 on the ensuing possession. On the second, Ryan was sacked on second down from the Patriots' 23-yard line and the Falcons were charged with holding on third down, taking them out of field-goal range for points that would have given them a two-score lead with less than four minutes remaining. They punted and watched as Tom Brady led the Patriots down the field to tie the game.
Multiple NFL coaches from other teams called the play-calling somewhere between an "unnecessary risk" and "arrogant stupidity," grasping on the fact that Shanahan has a long history of being considered overconfident.
"People who know Kyle well will all tell you that he's arrogant," said an executive to an NFC team. "He talks down to people, and he doesn't listen. He thinks that he knows better than anybody else...and he likes to prove that."
That executive and two coaches from other NFL teams said Monday that Shanahan simply tried too hard at a time when it was unnecessary. They also said that's a common trait when facing New England.
"The Patriots get in your head, and then all of a sudden you see coaches and players do things that don't make sense," the executive said.
"Yeah, I think that's been the case ever since [the 2007 divisional round, when] Marty Schottenheimer panicked against them," said one of the coaches, referring to Schottenheimer's decision to go for it on a 4th-and-11 play rather than to punt.
The way the Giants have beaten the Patriots twice in the Super Bowl, with heroic comebacks or big plays, has added an aura to the Patriots in the postseason.
Or as a coach was asked, Do you feel like you have to pull a sword out of a stone to beat the Patriots?
"That's a good way of putting it. The way their last two Super Bowl wins [happened], I'll buy it," the coach said.
After losing those two aforementioned Super Bowls to the Giants, the Patriots have won two highly improbable titles in the past three years. Two seasons ago, they beat Seattle on a late-game interception at the goal line as Seattle appeared ready to score from the New England 1-yard line.
This year, the Patriots staged the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history after Atlanta took a 28-3 lead in the second half. Then, Shanahan made his calls. There is a report that he took responsibility for it, but after the game, he defended those calls. He was asked directly about the sack that took the Falcons out of field-goal range.
"From what I remember, I think we ended up in 2nd-and-11, then we were throwing it, trying to get back into field-goal range, get a few yards," Shanahan said. "I think we did [run] on first down. I think we lost a yard. You don't think, just run the ball and make your guy kick a 50-yard field goal; you try your hardest to give him a great chance to for sure make it. But we ended up getting a sack, and it's not really an option after that."
The problem with that assessment is that the potential kick was much shorter. The Falcons were at the New England 23-yard line, meaning the field-goal attempt would have been 41 yards. Falcons kicker Matt Bryant had made 31 of 32 field goals from under 49 yards this season.
Again, to those who know Shanahan—even those who like him—that sounds all too familiar.
"Kyle is really not good at taking blame himself," said a coach who has worked with Shanahan. "Look at how he handled it when things went wrong in Washington and Cleveland. ... I'm not saying that Kyle is wrong, but he has a tendency to point fingers. You heard about [Robert Griffin III] in Washington. You heard about [former general manager] Ray Farmer in Cleveland.
"Personally, I think Kyle is going to grow out of it. His dad [former coach Mike Shanahan] knows the deal, and he's working with him. He got a good GM [John Lynch] to work with in San Francisco. Those guys can talk to him."
Still, some wonder.
"I know Kyle really well, and I trust him. But if he doesn't get all the responsibility, he'll point fingers, and that's going to be hard to coach through."
Jason Cole covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @JasonColeBR.