Just in time for the 49ers’ trip to Chicago this weekend, tight end Vance McDonald is flashing – finally – the Mike Ditka-esque qualities his former coach suspected he had all along.
On Sunday, McDonald not only had his best receiving game in 2 1/2 seasons – six catches for 71 yards and a touchdown – his collision with Arizona Cardinals safety Rashad Johnson ended with Johnson being blasted to the ground and McDonald staying on his feet and picking up several additional yards.
“That’s the kind of thing I just live for – I just love running people over,” McDonald said after the game. “That was just a great feeling when that happened. He ate my shoulder; it felt great.”
Said Ditka: “I saw him play last week. I think he caught a touchdown; he looks very good.”
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The tough talk and ironclad play were reminiscent of the former Bears Hall of Fame tight end who plowed over would-be tacklers from 1961-72 and whom Jim Harbaugh saw in McDonald when the 49ers drafted him out of Rice in the second round in 2013.
That’s the kind of thing I just live for – I just love running people over. That was just a great feeling when that happened. He ate my shoulder; it felt great.
49ers tight end Vance McDonald, on his collision with Arizona Cardinals safety Rashad Johnson
“When Vance McDonald gets here, I’m going to try to get him in the number 89,” Harbaugh gushed on draft day in 2013. “Because what I’ve come to know of Iron Mike Ditka, the respect that I have for him through the years, I can’t wait for coach Ditka to see Vance McDonald because I believe he’s going to see some very good similarities.”
The 49ers gave McDonald No. 89, but until recently that was the only resemblance. With Vernon Davis atop the depth chart at tight end, passes rarely went in McDonald’s direction, and when they did they often slipped through his hands.
He had three drops his rookie year and dropped two in an injury-shortened 2014 season, according to SportingCharts.com. This year he’s tied for the team lead in drops – three – with wide receiver Quinton Patton.
The difference lately is that more passes are coming his way as one of the few tight ends on the team still standing.
Davis and three other tight ends have been traded since August. And Garrett Celek, who had been the team’s best player through the first 11 games, went down Sunday with a high-ankle sprain that is expected to keep him out for several weeks.
The losses have meant more opportunities for McDonald, and he appears comfortable with the bigger workload. Through Week 10, he was targeted on just 16 throws and caught nine for 64 yards. In the last two weeks, he’s caught 10 of 11 passes for 136 yards and the only two touchdown catches of his career.
One obvious difference is the change at quarterback. Blaine Gabbert, who became the starter Nov. 8 after Colin Kaepernick was benched, has said there’s no shame in checking down to open receivers close to the line of scrimmage, and that often has meant throws to tight ends. All four of Gabbert’s touchdown passes have been to either Celek or McDonald.
“There’s no secret formula,” McDonald said. “Blaine and Kap are two different quarterbacks. And both can make plays that the other can’t. It’s just offensively we’ve been clicking, which has been really fun to play in. And we’ve just got to close plays out.”
Ditka said in a phone interview that he had only really watched McDonald in his last two games, which arguably have been his best. Ditka said McDonald looked a lot like other top tight ends in the league – fast, athletic and good at route running – but not the rough-and-tumble blockers of his era.
There’s no secret formula. Blaine and Kap are two different quarterbacks. And both can make plays that the other can’t. It’s just offensively we’ve been clicking, which has been really fun to play in. And we’ve just got to close plays out.
49ers tight end Vance McDonald
“If those two games were his best, he’s going to have better ones to come,” Ditka said.
Asked whether he felt like Ditka when he delivered his left-shoulder shiver against the Cardinals, McDonald at first played coy.
“Mike Ditka highlight?” he said. “What’s the reference? Oh, 89?”
The comparison was foisted upon him – he didn’t choose his jersey number – and at times it’s been more of a burden than a compliment. But it seems a more natural fit lately, this week especially.
“Joking. Joking, by the way,” McDonald said before finishing politely. “Yeah, I forgot about that. A lot of tight ends play the game that way. Mike Ditka was one of the best.”