SANTA CLARA — A month ago, San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle pondered the Stone Cold Steve Austin action figure that sat atop his locker, in a cubbyhole almost perfectly-sized for the miniature WWE grappler. “He had the right idea, man,” Kittle mused. Stone Cold knew how to electrify a crowd.
A wrestling fan since college, when he and Iowa teammate Steve Manders would get dinged for data overages for watching old film of Stone Cold and The Rock, Kittle got to take part in a match in May of 2017, and deliver a Stone Cold Stunner in front of about 100 people.
“The whole place erupted,” Kittle said. “The thrill and the exhilaration I got from it, I was like, ‘OK, I understand why people do this, when they don’t get paid a lot of money.’ It’s so much fun. When I’m having fun out there [on the field], I’m a little wild out there, so it comes out.”
On Sunday, against the visiting Denver Broncos, Kittle brought San Francisco fans to their feet for a rare respite from what’s been a dismal season, breaking a pair of franchise records in a 20-14 win. His seven-catch, 210-yard performance — all in the first half — helped lead directly to three of the 49ers’ four scores and gave him 1,103 receiving yards for the season.
“Obviously, he deserves to be a Pro Bowler,” said cornerback Richard Sherman. “He’s been arguably the best tight end in football, no disrespect to [Kansas City tight end Travis] Kelce or Grong (Rob Gronkowski), or any of those other guys … but to be a second-year player playing the way he is, he makes an impact every game.”
And that’s the bottom line … because it’s true.
“85 is a hell of a player,” said Broncos linebacker Von Miller. “George Kittle is a hell of a player, and he took some 10-yard plays the distance today. There’s not too many tight ends in the league that can do that.”
Since becoming a cult hero among the 49ers Faithful for his breakout rookie season, Kittle — who gushed three weeks ago about getting a Twitter follow from Pro Bowl votes leader Kelce — has become one of the most prolific and dependable playmakers on a team devoid of both thanks to injury. On Sunday, the former fifth-round pick out of Iowa broke the franchise records for receiving yards in a season and in a single game by a tight end. In the process, he recorded 136 yards after the catch.
“The thing that he’s doing better, that I can say he’s done better than any tight end I’ve ever had, is what he’s doing after the catch,” said head coach Kyle Shanahan. “He does a good job beating man coverage and does a good job in his routes and does a great job blocking, but when that ball is in the air, the play is just starting.”
Kittle’s day represented the eighth-most receiving yards in a single game in franchise history and the third-most receiving yards in a single game in the NFL this season, not to mention the third-most by a tight end in NFL history.
By crossing the 1,000-yard mark on Sunday, Kittle became the first San Francisco player to rack up over 1,000 receiving yards since Anquan Boldin had 1,062 in 2014. He joined Boldin (who also had 1,179 receiving yards in 2013) and Michael Crabtree (1,105 in 2012) as the only 49ers with 1,000-yard receiving seasons since Terrell Owens in 2003.
“He’s our number one receiver yards-wise and targets-wise,” Sherman said. “It’s not like it’s a surprise that we’re throwing the ball to him against Denver, and they still couldn’t stop him.”
Kittle now has more than twice as many catches (76) as San Francisco’s second-leading receiver. On Sunday, Denver’s only answer was to hold him three times in the first half, and try and send Miller early to disrupt quarterback Nick Mullens. Miller was flagged three times for neutral zone infractions in the first half.
“I feel like I should get yards for that [holding],” Kittle said. “It was in our game plan all week. They leave a lot of guys on islands. If they’re out of position, they’re going to hold. It happened several times, and I’m thankful for it. It definitely helped out on some of our drives.”
Of the nine first-half penalties called on the Broncos, eight came on defense. Of those, five gave San Francisco first downs.
The only thing that stopped Kittle was triple coverage, and even then, it took until the second half. That’s when the Broncos dialed up extra pressure on Mullens, who took six hits after taking just one in the first half. He only targeted Kittle once after halftime, sailing the ball over his head.
“He’s already apologized twice to me for not getting me the ball,” Kittle said.
Kittle was four yards short of the all-time single-game tight end receiving record of 214 yards, set by Shannon Sharpe in 2003 while with Denver.
“You can blame that on me,” Mullens said. “It would have been really cool to get him that record … It’s just kind of the rhythm of the game. It was really just by coincidence that he had a lot of big plays in the first half. Every game has a different rhythm to it, a different flow. That’s just kind of how the game played out.”
In the first half, though, it was hard to find a way to contain Kittle. His second catch of the day — 31 yards on a post — helped set up the first of two Robbie Gould field goals, from 40 yards out, giving San Francisco an early 3-0 lead.
Kittle’s fourth catch of the day went up on the left side, as he weaved through a pair of defenders, blasted through another and rumbled his way down to the Denver 12, rolling his way to the ground after a 52-yard grab. That set up Gould’s second field goal, from 29 yards.
“I’ve got to pick my feet up,” Kittle said. “My tight end coach gave me some grief about that. He’s like, ‘I teach you to pick your feet up every single time, and you didn’t do it.’ I felt like I was pulling the trailer, but I unhitched it for the second one, though.”
With 9:52 left in the first half, Kittle slanted across the field from left to right, hauled in an easy toss from Nick Mullens at his own 30, rumbled to the Denver 40, angled back to his left inside the numbers and ran in an easy 85-yard touchdown reception, passing 1,000 yards on the season and putting the 49ers ahead, 13-0.
“It’s really fun, especially when you catch the ball and there’s nothing but green grass in front of you,” said Kittle, who attributed his speed to his mother’s side of the family. Aside from his grandfather, who was drafted by the Chicago Cardinals, his mother, Jan Krieger, was a star athlete at Winfield-Mount Union in basketball (she scored 1,846 points in college for Drake) and softball, and is in the Iowa Girls’ High School Athletic Union Hall of Fame.
“Good genes on that side,” Kittle said. “My dad [former Iowa Rose Bowl co-captain Bruce] will be upset about that, but he understands.”
Kittle’s next grab — an 18-yard turn-around leaping snatch at the Denver 14 — set up Dante Pettis’s fourth touchdown in his last three games, a fade to the back corner of the end zone with eight seconds left before halftime, putting San Francisco up 20-0.
“He beat us one-on-one,” said Denver head coach Vance Joseph. “He’s a great player. We knew coming into the game that he’s the guy we had to stop and we didn’t get it done.”
The lead could have been even wider, were it not for missed opportunities by a 49ers defense that still has just five takeaways all season. San Francisco forced two fumbles in the first half, but couldn’t recover either, and had a near pick when Sherman stuck Tim Patrick to jar a ball loose, but the ball was ruled to have hit the ground before Malcolm Smith recovered it.
Denver made halftime adjustments on both sides of the ball, scoring twice, all while taking Kittle away on defense, locking down on the run, keeping the 49ers to 2-of-7 on third down and hammering Mullens.
“Couldn’t get our run game going,” Shanahan said. “They got good edge players and very big, stout inside payers. Couldn’t create enough space in that.”
That’s not to say, after a Marcell Harris stop on fourth down with under four minutes remaining, that Shanahan didn’t at least think about getting Kittle the ball to break Sharpe’s record.
“I wish I called his number more in the second half,” Shanahan said. “I definitely apologized to him. We were definitely debating on how we could do it there at the end. I didn’t think it would have been a problem, but I wish that he did get it. To have that all in the first half and only be five yards away, he had an unbelievable day. It sucked that he didn’t get it.”
With all the bravado of his heroes of the squared circle, Kittle smirked when asked about the record.
“Next time,” he said.