Kurtenbach: Conservative Kyle Shanahan still tightens up in big games. Lions coach Dan Campbell lets it rip. That difference could prove massive in the NFC Championship Game

Kurtenbach: Conservative Kyle Shanahan still tightens up in big games. Lions coach Dan Campbell lets it rip. That difference could prove massive in the NFC Championship Game

SANTA CLARA — There’s more than a bit of grandiosity in professional sports these days.

Two quality teams can’t simply face off anymore. No, it has to be a battle of “great versus downtrodden” or “good versus evil.”

Of course, the truth is rarely ever that polarizing.

Except in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game, of course.

What this game lacks in moral value battles, it makes up for in ideological differences.

The Lions are the most aggressive team in the NFL. Detroit coach Dan Campbell has created a culture of fake punts, fourth-down attempts, and manic energy on offense and defense.

“I want us to be aggressive,” Campbell told MLive in 2021 after taking the Lions job. “I want us to think aggressively. I don’t want to be known as a conservative team.”

And 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan will not be confused with Cambell anytime soon.

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Sure, the 49ers head coach’s offense might be as progressive and dynamic as any in the NFL, but his belief in the old core tenets of football — run the ball, end the first half with a kick, grind out clock — is steadfast.

And Shanahan’s propensity to tighten up in big moments — to become even more conservative when the game is one the line — can’t be ignored.

It could even prove to be the deciding factor in Sunday’s game.

Sure, the 49ers have made the correct call on going for it — or not — on fourth down 100 percent of the time, per an analysis of NFL.com data, but when you go for it a league-low 13 times throughout the year, that percentage speaks more to the analysis than the man.

The Niners’ one overtly aggressive play this season — a massive fake punt run against Seattle at Levi’s Stadium — was not only a vigilante decision from punter Mitch Wishnowsky, but it didn’t even count thanks to penalties.

Shanahan joked after the game that he “called his first fake punt,” only to recant a moment later, saying, “I don’t know what happened” on the play.

So, suffice it to say that Shanahan has a low tolerance for risk.

On the other hand, the Lions went for it on fourth down 40 times this season — the second-most attempts in the league. They converted just as often as the Niners did, percentage-wise (52, 53 percent), but that brought 21 new series and a belief that permeated the entire team.

Campbell trusts his guys to make the big play in the big moment.

Does Shanahan?

Last week’s 49ers win over the Packers is the perfect example of Shanahan’s reticence towards aggression: The 49ers had the ball at their 25-yard line with 4:09 to play in the first half and three timeouts.

The Niners gained only 15 yards on three plays before the two-minute warning, after which they ran three times before taking their first timeout with less than a minute to play.

There were no certified drive killers — penalties or sacks — on the drive. Shanahan decided that the Niners were incapable of executing a four-minute offense and scoring a touchdown on the drive — he played for a field goal.

The football gods rewarded that cowardly decision by helping the Packers block that attempt.

Luckily for Shanahan, the Niners’ offense — led by Brock Purdy — could execute a four-minute offense to win the game.

Shanahan has been asked about the end-of-the-first-half clock management in the week since. He’s become a bit churlish about it:

“No, we handled it the way we wanted to,” Shanahan said Thursday. “We ended up kicking on fourth down, didn’t we? That’s right, right?”

You sure did, Kyle. You also ended the half with zero points on the final drive.

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Shanahan’s offensive scheme might be able to make more points than any other in the league, but that level of conservatism permeates a team. If nothing else, it tells your offense and your quarterback that you don’t totally trust them to make plays.

The notion that Shanahan was pushing at the end of the first half — one in the hand (3 points, a field goal) is better than two in the bush (6 points, a touchdown) — was proven false when the Niners ended up with zero points. Nothing is guaranteed in this sport — go for the touchdown, and if you have to kick a field goal, so be it.

Perhaps this whole story Shanahan is pushing is just a cover for his poor clock and timeout management. He certainly doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt there, either.

After all, this man coordinated the offense that lost a 28-3 Super Bowl lead.

But now eight years removed from that catastrophe in Houston, it’s evident that Shanahan will continue to do things the same way — no matter the outcome or outcry.

This is the biggest game that Campbell has ever coached, but conceding points is something he has shown he will not do. The Lions are all out, all the time. It’s a joy to watch from a third-party perspective, and it’s probably a pain to go up against.

Sure, being aggressive can backfire, but if nothing else, flooring it all the time creates a culture of trust and belief.

What else can be inferred from a coach that’s constantly taking risks?

None of this could matter. The Niners’ prodigious talent has certainly bailed Shanahan out before. It did it on Saturday.

Yes, the margin of this NFC title game might be so large — the Niners are touchdown favorites — that this mismatch of styles might not play a role in the final score.

But if the margins are tight — if this is genuinely a one-possession game — we know how both head coaches will handle it.

Campbell is going to try to steal possessions.

Shanahan is going to try to limit them.

With this significant a contrast, someone will have to win, and someone will have to lose that battle.

And that will likely determine the game, too.