Everyone on the 49ers’ sideline knew what was happening.
Even in a 48-32 blowout loss to the playoff-bound Los Angeles Rams on Sunday, George Kittle’s coaches and teammates wanted to get the ball back and give San Francisco’s second-year tight end a chance at history.
“And we would have got people out there, try to stay as healthy as possible,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said, “but the whole team wanted us to get that for Kittle.”
The game was decided. The Rams were playing backups, as they had all but clinched a first-round bye in the playoffs. But the 49ers’ defense was eager to give the ball to the offense with just under three minutes remaining.
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The defense got the stop, stuffing a Rams rushing attempt on fourth down. Two plays later, quarterback Nick Mullens found Kittle on a quick throw toward the left sideline. Kittle streaked up the field, slipped two tackles and completed a 43-yard catch and run for a touchdown.
It was his last reception of the season and gave him 1,377 yards receiving, an NFL season record for a tight end. He also broke a franchise season record for tight ends with 88 catches.
Kittle was among the league leaders in yards after the catch this season, so it was fitting the record was clinched with a short completion that turned into another huge gain. It was his sixth reception of more than 40 yards.
“His personality is just as flashy as his playing style, and I love it,” Mullens said.
Kittle’s rapid rise is easily the most encouraging development for the 49ers in their 4-12 campaign. He posted a historic season despite catching passes from three quarterbacks because of Jimmy Garoppolo’s season-ending knee injury in September.
Kittle set the tone with a promising rookie year, logging 515 yards on 43 catches despite never having more than 22 catches in college and falling to the fifth round of the NFL draft, where eight tight ends were taken before him.
“George laid the groundwork all the way back in April of last year of who he was going to be for this football team this year,” rookie tackle Mike McGlinchey said. “We all saw it all the way back in OTAs of what he was going to be doing this year for us. And couldn’t be happier for him and what’s he’s done this year. Couldn’t happen to a better guy.”
The 49ers named Kittle a team captain early in the season, making him the youngest of the five-man group that included prominent locker-room voices such as Richard Sherman and Joe Staley.
Kittle’s work ethic and approach flashed to his teammates throughout the offseason and led to the honor of captain. He proved them right by putting together one of the best seasons for any player at the position. Kittle leapfrogged Rob Gronkowski (1,327 yards in 2011), Jimmy Graham (1,310, 2011), Kellen Winslow (1,290, 1980) and Tony Gonzalez (1,258, 2004).
Gronkowski’s record was snapped earlier Sunday by Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, who finished with 1,336 yards, before Kittle broke it again. Kelce had 62 yards in a blowout over the Raiders.
“That means everything to me. Those are guys that I looked up to,” Kittle said. “Those are guys that I’ve watched for 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. That’s a lot on him. And I just appreciate everything. The fact that my name’s on the list now with those guys, that means a lot.”
Shanahan said he owed Kittle after failing to get him a second-half reception during his 210-yard performance against the Denver Broncos, when he was 5 yards shy of setting the single-game record for yardage by a tight end.
“He’s let me know about it. So has his mom, and dad, so we definitely tried to make it up to him,” Shanahan said.
Kittle had two catches for 32 yards in the first half Sunday and 117 yards after halftime. His 149-yard total was his second-highest this season. His touchdown gave him five, tying him with rookie receiver Dante Pettis for the team lead.
Kittle’s big personality has catalyzed the locker room as a positive place despite the team being out of the playoff mix for the fifth straight season.
“He’s a goofy dude,” said receiver Trent Taylor, who was roommates with Kittle during their rookie seasons. “He’s one of the goofiest dudes I’ve been around. But at the same time, he’s one of the most focused guys, the most locked-in guys that you’ll find on a daily basis. It’s kind of the guy he is. It’s not like he’s got to be revved up for the game. Or it doesn’t have to be a big game. He’s locked in no matter what.
“... That’s why you see him ballin’ out like that every single game and getting that record.”