George Kittle’s historic performance Sunday might have never happened if not for a decision he made in college.
The skinny, 200-pound freshman at Iowa was nearly moved to linebacker because he couldn’t put on weight. As Kittle red-shirted in 2012, he mulled over the decision with his father, Bruce, who played on the offensive line with the Hawkeyes beginning in 1977 before becoming a team captain on the 1982 Rose Bowl team.
“He was like, ‘No chance. You want to be on offense.’ I was like, ‘Okay,’” Kittle told The Bee.
Six years later, the 250-pound Kittle finds himself among the best tight ends in the NFL. His standing was solidified Sunday with the third-best yardage performance by a tight end in NFL history, helping the 49ers defeat the Denver Broncos 20-14 at Levi’s Stadium. Kittle had seven receptions for 210 yards, five yards short of breaking Shannon Sharpe’s single-game record of 214 on Oct. 20, 2002, set with the Broncos against the Kansas City Chiefs.
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Kittle also became the first 49ers tight end to reach 1,000 yards in a season. He broke that mark with his 85-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter, his third catch of the season of more than 70 yards, and his second such touchdown.
Kittle smashed Vernon Davis’ previous team record of 965 yards in 2009. Kittle has 1,103 yards receiving.
Good thing he listened to his dad.
“He’s super dynamic in everything he does,” left tackle Joe Staley said. “And I’m happy to have him on our team.”
Said Broncos pass rusher Von Miller, the Super Bowl MVP at Levi’s Stadium in February 2016: “85 is a hell of a player.”
Kittle would contend he was lucky to end up at Iowa in the first place. He told The Bee he signed with the Hawkeyes at the last possible moment on signing day, only because coach Kirk Ferentz lost out on a few expected recruits, leaving unexpected openings.
That cleared the way for Kittle despite only being recruited by Air Force, Navy and Weber State, where he took an official visit before following his dad’s footsteps.
The 49ers saw potential in Kittle leading up to the 2017 draft because of his fundamentals as a running blocker and untapped athleticism, so they took him in Round 5, making him the ninth tight end off the board. Kittle was pick No. 146, one selection after the Broncos took fellow tight end Jake Butt at 145.
It’s safe to wonder if Broncos general manager John Elway was second-guessing himself after watching Kittle’s breakout performance.
“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,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “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. He’s trying to catch it and he runs angry and he runs confidently that he expects to score on every look. I think that’s why it’s been easier to get him the yards he has.”
Kittle had 70 yards after the catch on his 85-yard touchdown. The Broncos busted a coverage as Kittle ran a corner route. He broke upfield and received a good block from rookie receiver Dante Pettis, allowing Kittle an easy sprint to the end zone. Pettis returned the favor a week after Kittle made a similar play during Pettis’ 75-yard score in Seattle.
Kittle also nearly scored a 53-yard touchdown in the first quarter but was caught by defensive back Darian Stewart, who tripped Kittle at Denver’s 22-yard line.
“I gotta pick my feet up,” Kittle said.
Said quarterback Nick Mullens, who had 332 yards passing, two touchdowns, an interception and a 102.1 passer rating: “He was open every play, man. It was crazy.”
The 49ers led 20-0 at halftime, outgaining the Broncos 311-65 at the break. But the offense slowed significantly in the second half, largely because Kittle was held without a catch.
Shanahan said he apologized to Kittle for not getting him five more yards and the all-time record for a tight end.
“We were definitely debating on how we could do it there at the end,” Shanahan said. “I didn’t think it would have been a problem, but I wish that he did get it. Because to have that all in the first half and only be five yards away, he had an believeable day. It sucked that he didn’t get it.”
Pettis scored a 1-yard touchdown in the second quarter, giving him four in his last three games. He made a move to gain separation from cornerback Isaac Yiadom and ran a simple fade to the right. Pettis pretended to pull a pen out of his sock to autograph the football, honoring Hall of Fame wideout Terrell Owens.
Mullens has thrown for 746 yards over two games, both against playoff contenders, though Denver’s chances took a significant hit by falling to 6-7.
The 49ers got good news some 40 miles north. The Oakland Raiders beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, leaving the 49ers, Raiders and Arizona Cardinals as the NFL’s only 3-10 teams.
San Francisco remains in the driver’s seat for the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft because it has the worst strength of schedule of those three teams.