SANTA CLARA, Calif. — During June’s OTAs, tight end George Kittle walked into a meeting room with the rest of his position group and the quarterbacks for what was supposed to be a routine film meeting.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan went over a single third-down route, run 100 times, for 45 minutes. That would have overwhelmed the second-year Kittle a season ago. Not anymore.
“It’s special,” Kittle said. “He broke it down in every single way, from your stance to the release to how to attack the guy — if he’s going under you, over you, outside of you — in every single one of those scenarios. Quarters, Tampa-2, Cover-3 — how to attack the guy if he’s flat-footed, how to attack him if he’s open-hips. One route took 45 minutes. That’s how he watches film.”
While the defensive backs have been the story of camp so far — and they had four more picks on Sunday — the headlines this fall will be about Shanahan, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and an offense rolling into year two with a sense of confidence and deeper understanding.
While San Francisco wide receivers had just six touchdowns among them last season, that was almost all due to quarterback play over the first 11 games, when CJ Beathard and Brian Hoyer were at the helm.
In six of his nine seasons as a coordinator, Shanahan’s offenses ranked among the NFL’s top 10.
Over the final five games of the 2017-18 season, with Garoppolo starting, the 49ers averaged 28.8 points per game, a number that would have tied them for third overall in the NFL in scoring, if stretched out over the entire campaign.
Garoppolo has now had time studying Shanahan’s system, an offseason to work and some new toys. He’ll have speedy rookie Dante Pettis as a downfield threat. He’ll also have a healthy Pierre Garçon, who only played eight games — all of them before Garoppolo’s acquisition.
The biggest knock on Garoppolo — that he struggles with downfield throws — has taken a beating this camp, as Garoppolo has consistently been able to find Goodwin and Pettis on deep routes. Having multiple deep threats will only open the field up more for the run game, as well as for Trent Taylor, Aaron Burbridge and Richie James.
“Whether you’ve got Pierre, Marquise, Trent, Richie, Dante, you’ve got a whole bunch of guys out there, and Burbridge, that can all make plays, that can, when you call their name, they can make a play,” Kittle said. “That just takes pressure off the guy next to him, and makes it easier to play ball.”
The 49ers brain trust of Shanahan and general manager John Lynch targeted Garoppolo from the day they arrived on the job as someone who could make this offense purr, and now that they have him — and the majority of their offensive weapons going through their second training camp — big things could be coming.
“I feel like our whole offense has taken such big strides since last year OTAs, even OTAs this year,” Kittle said. “Just being able to hear it so many times, I think I’ve gotten to my fourth install, so the repetitiveness is good. That just helps me, and I think it helps the entire offense hearing it multiple times. Now, I don’t have to think about it. Now, I can just go out and do it.”
Garoppolo spent part of his off day on Saturday studying, and came in to the facility to get more work done.
Even though Garoppolo could be excused for just using his time with the 49ers late last season to get up to speed, he actually showed some early mastery and improvisation. That’s only increased so far during training camp.
Garoppolo has told his receivers to “overcome coaching,” though that’s not to disparage Shanahan’s offense.
“We might have a certain route written on paper, but you don’t have to run it the exact way,” tight end Garrett Celek said on Thursday. “Jimmy has learned a lot from (Tom) Brady and he knows ‘Hey, you don’t have to do exactly what they’re telling us to do. Get open. Get the ball. Let’s make plays.’”
Garoppolo clarified his philosophy on Sunday.
“It’s just when you’re in the route, all of a sudden you might feel a different coverage and now you have to run an outbreaking route when a guy is outside of you, that’s a tough thing to do,” Garoppolo said. “But, if you just run the route in the paper, yeah you’ll get a good checkmark on the grade sheet but you didn’t win the route.
“ … It’s just, you’re going against one of 15, 20 coverages that you could go against, so, one route could look 15 different ways. Overcoming coaching sounds bad just in itself, I’m not trying to get yelled at or anything. It’s just being a football player, really, is how I look at it.”
Shanahan has had his wide receivers learn multiple positions in order for the offense to be more versatile, and so that opposing defenses won’t be able to rely on personnel groupings for how they defend any given play.
Kittle, for instance, has to know the Y — the tight end — as well as the F and, most exciting for him, the Z, “which is pretty fun,” he said.
“I’ve got a Z-Ghost, which is like a fake around,” Kittle said. “We haven’t ran it yet, but I really want to.”
Will San Francisco run that play this season?
“What did George say?” Garoppolo smirked. “He’s eager to run it? If his 40 time drops by a couple tenths of a second, maybe we’ll see.”