LOS ANGELES — San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle, three yards shy of setting an NFL record, with grass chunks clinging to his right sleeve, lined up in a slot bunch formation with just under 2:30 to go in an eventual 48-32 loss to the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday.
The last time Kittle had flirted with an NFL record — the single-game tight end receiving yards record — he piled up 210 in the first half against the Denver Broncos. He didn’t make a single catch in the second half.
“He’s let me know about it,” said head coach Kyle Shanahan. “He’s let me know about it, so has his mom, and dad, so we tried to make it up to him.”
On the final offensive series of the final game of a wasted season marked by injuries and disappointment, quarterback Nick Mullens found Kittle for a quick six yards. Then, with Kittle having shifted into the slot on the next play, he dropped back and found Kittle on a short, 13-yard stick route. The first-time Pro Bowler slipped by a cornerback and rumbled 30 more yards for a 43-yard touchdown, giving San Francisco one final highlight in a turnover-filled loss to the NFC West champion Rams.
“[Shanahan] said, ‘You’ve got this play and this play, so it’s on you now,'” Kittle said. “Going into that last drive, ‘Hey, you need nine, yards,’ so we said let’s make it 15, and I said, ‘I’ll just take it to the end zone,’ I guess … I’m just glad that Nick said, ‘Hey, I’ll throw the ball no matter what.’ I really appreciate that.”
After a 51-yard field goal by Greg Zuerlein on the first drive of the fourth quarter, San Francisco got a two-yard TD pass from Mullens to Kendrick Bourne with 7:02 to go. The Rams proceeded to burn 4:17 off the clock, but Ronald Blair dropped running back John Kelly for a loss three times, including one final time on fourth-and-four, to give the ball back to the offense with time to get Kittle the record.
“We wanted to get out of there as healthy as possible, but the whole team — and us — wanted to get it for Kittle,” Shanahan said.
Shanahan made sure to take a pair of time outs during that final stand, in order to leave enough time. Cornerback Richard Sherman, who had exited the game to rest his surgically-repaired Achilles once things were out of reach, said the coaching staff told the defense they needed to get a stop.
“We all wanted it bad,” said offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey. “We were all talking about it on the sideline. We were praying that the defense would come up with that stop.”
“I’m ecstatic,” Sherman said. “He deserved it. He’s such a hard-working player. The last play was like a microcosm of who he is as a player and a person. It’s a five-yard gain for the record, and he takes it whatever it was, 40 yards, and scores a touchdown. He never stops playing.”
Kittle has been one of the lone bright spots in a season that, with a loss by the Arizona Cardinals to the Seattle Seahawks, will net San Francisco the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.
“We haven’t had a lot of wins this year, and I know it’s an individual award, but seeing one of your guys, one of your close friends, our leader, get that record, it’s pretty special for us,” McGlinchey said.
Kittle’s 1,377 yards surpassed Rob Gronkowski’s mark of 1,327, set in 2011, and surpassed his personal hero Travis Kelce, who, with 62 yards in the early game against the Oakland Raiders, finished with 1,336 for the Kansas City Chiefs, less than two hours before the 49ers’ final drive. Kittle would pass Gronkowski, Kelce, Tony Gonzalez, Kellen Winslow and Jimmy Graham en route to the record.
“That means everything to me,” Kittle said. “Those guys are guys that I’ve looked up to, guys that I’ve watched film of, countless hours, just trying to take little tidbits from each of their games. The fact that coach Shanahan gave me the opportunity to get that all season long, … I just appreciate everything … It hasn’t hit me yet.”
While Kelce sent Kittle a special Christmas present last week — a personalized, signed jersey — Kittle wasn’t about to let anyone have his record-breaking top, or let anyone know what, exactly, he did with it.
“I refuse to [trade it],” Kittle said. “That’s mine. I hid that so nobody could take it at all. I don’t want that Tom Brady thing happening, where he got his jersey stolen. No, that’s mine, and I’m pretty happy.”
Kittle finished his second professional season with 88 catches, and accounted for 23.9 percent of San Francisco’s offensive production this season, along with five of the 49ers’ 35 touchdowns.
On Sunday, he accounted for 149 of Mullens’s 282 passing yards, and throughout the game, his position coach, Jon Embree, would give him periodic updates as to where he stood in terms of yardage.
The only way to top this season, Kittle said, would be to win more games. Given where San Francisco finished, in terms of draft order, they’ll have an opportunity to get better, especially with the returns of Jimmy Garoppolo, Jerick McKinnon, Adrian Colbert, et al.
The 49ers looked like they were steaming full speed ahead towards that No. 2 draft pick in the early goings, as their first three possessions — and four of their first five — ended in turnovers, off of which Los Angeles scored 21 points. Two of those were on Mullens, and two set the San Francisco defense up with two fields of 13 yards or fewer. The Rams needed just five plays to go 19 yards on those possessions to go up 14-0, and were never really challenged after that.
“Starting that game off with four turnovers, the same way we did the last time against them, really doesn’t give yourself much of a chance,” Shanahan said.
After a 47-yard fumble return by Aquib Talib at the expense of Kyle Juszczyk on San Francisco’s fourth play from scrimmage set up a Jared Goff touchdown pass to Brandin Cooks, the 49ers’ second drive saw Mullens’s eighth interception of the season fall right into the hands of Cory Littleton with no San Francisco receiver in sight.
That pick, returned 22 yards, set up yet another score, a CJ Anderson touchdown run.
After gaining just 24 yards on seven plays in their first two possessions (thanks to Aaron Donald punishing the interior), San Francisco marched down the field through the air on its third drive. Catches of 12 and 23 yards by Kendrick Bourne and a fourth-and-four conversion up the seam to Kittle brought San Francisco inside the Los Angeles 20.
Then, as Mullens was squashed in the backfield by Donald, he heaved up a 16-yard prayer to Kittle in the end zone. The ball was tipped into the air by John Johnson III, into the hands of Blake Countess for Mullens’s second of three interceptions.
San Francisco managed to force a punt, and marched right back into the red zone on its next drive, thanks to a 51-yard run by Alfred Morris. That drive, too, was smothered by Donald, who hurled Mullens down for his 20th sack of the season, forcing a 30-yard Robbie Gould field goal with 2:11 to go in the first.
A pick six by Littleton with 12:37 to go before half put the Rams up, 21-3.
Los Angeles scored its first non-turnover-related touchdown with six minutes to go before the half, going 86 yards in 11 plays and finishing with an 18-yard toss from Goff to Cooks.
San Francisco responded with Richie James’s first career receiving touchdown with 2:07 to go before the break, but the drive to get to that nine-yard score was costly. Five plays earlier, left guard Laken Tomlinson went down with a right knee injury on a Morris run, and was carted off the field. He’d started 31 straight games, and played in 63 of 64 games since entering the league, and played every snap this season. Shanahan did not rule out an ACL tear.
“Laken’s been great all year,” Shanahan said. “We got him a week before the season our first year here, and he didn’t start our first game, and he started all 15 games after that. He’s gotten better each week. Came in this offseason and took a huge step forward, stayed healthy for us all year. He’s been a very good player. Hoping for good news on it.”
Goff threw a pair of touchdowns to Josh Reynolds in the third quarter, sandwiched around a Morris one-yard TD run for San Francisco, before exiting with 199 passing yards and four touchdown tosses on the day.
Kittle’s 43-yard score was scored, as McGlinchey said, in “perfect Kittle fashion.” With 750 yards after catch coming into the game — second in the NFL — he broke 800 with his performance against the Rams.
“I’m ecstatic,” said cornerback Richard Sherman. “He deserved it. He’s such a hard-working player. The last play was like a microcosm of who he is as a player and a person. It’s a five-yard gain for the record, and he takes it whatever it was, 40 yards, and scores a touchdown. He never stops playing.”
Kittle, who celebrated his Pro Bowl nod earlier this month with a Netflix binge and Chinese food, said he’ll likely repeat the celebration, but this time, with his whole family, who came out for the game.
“He’s a special player,” McGlinchey said. “One of the best in the league at what he’s doing.”