LOS ANGELES — Earlier this month, San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan regretted that he couldn’t help tight end George Kittle break the record for most receiving yards in a game against the Denver Broncos. Kittle came up 5 yards short of reaching that mark.
But Kittle would not be denied of the single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end. In Sunday’s 48-32 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, Kittle posted nine catches for 149 yards to surpass New England’s Rob Gronkowski and Kansas City’s Travis Kelce for the most receiving yards by a tight end in a season.
After the game, Kittle got a little emotional about the record, not because of what the individual accomplishment meant to him but because of all that the entire team put in to making it happen.
“The fact that our defense, we’re down like five guys and they still get a stop and they’re going for it on fourth down,” Kittle said. “And Nick [Mullens] says, ‘Hey, screw it, I’m going to throw it to you.’ And coach Shanahan says, ‘Hey, you’ve got two plays to get this done. Get it done.’
“I cherish my teammates and my coaches. They’ve put a lot of effort into me, a lot of faith in me, and I’m just glad I could do it. But it’s not individual — this was definitely a team thing and I’m absolutely exhilarated to be on this type of team with these guys.”
Kittle, a 2017 fifth-round pick out of Iowa, finished his breakout year with 1,377 yards on 88 catches to go with five touchdowns. Those yardage and catch marks also are 49ers franchise records for a tight end. Kittle also had four 100-plus-yard games, six games of 90-plus yards and led the NFL with 870 yards after the catch, the most yards after the catch by any player in a season since 2010.
Going into Sunday, Gronkowski owned the record at 1,327 yards with Kittle trailing by 99 and Kelce behind Gronkowski by only 53. Kelce surpassed Gronkowski with 62 yards in a win against the Oakland Raiders but that record stood for less than an hour.
Word quickly spread to the 49ers’ sideline that Kittle needed to jump not only Gronkowski but Kelce to carve his place in history. The coaching staff let the defense know that it needed a stop, and Shanahan told Kittle with about six minutes to go that Kelce was his new target.
As the defense got the needed stops to put the Rams in a fourth-down situation, Shanahan began calling timeouts.
“We had a pretty good idea the game was over and we would have got people out of there, try to be as healthy as possible,” Shanahan said. “But the whole team and us wanted to get that for Kittle.”
As Kittle jogged onto the field for the final drive needing 9 yards to pass Kelce, Shanahan let him know he had two plays to break the record and that was it. On first down, Mullens found Kittle for a gain of 6 as he battled to try to get the other 3 yards he needed. On second down, Mullens fired into the left flat, where Kittle caught it, made a defender miss and raced 43 yards for a touchdown and the record.
George Kittle, Kyle Shanahan and Nick Mullens detail how the team banded together to help set the receiving yards record by a tight end.
It was a fitting way to break the record for Kittle, who made a habit of long catch-and-runs this season, including three that went for 70 or more yards.
“The last play was like a microcosm of who he is as a player and a person,” cornerback Richard Sherman said. “It’s a 5-yard gain for the record and he takes it — whatever it was — 40 yards, scores a touchdown. He just never stops playing.”
In a lost season in which the Niners finished 4-12 and will pick second in the 2019 NFL draft, Kittle emerged as their brightest star, a team captain and a strong candidate for the team’s MVP award.
As Kittle broke the record Sunday, he was instantly mobbed by teammates — and the team’s equipment manager, who quickly commandeered the ball he scored the touchdown with for safe keeping.
Kittle also held close to his jersey, gloves and cleats so he could take his piece of history home with him. Asked what he would do if Canton called for any of those items, Kittle answered in typical earnest fashion.
“These are going in my personal bag so I know where they are at all times,” Kittle said. “There’s duplicates, right?”
Throughout the week leading to Sunday’s game, Shanahan joked with Kittle about the plays he put in the game plan with an eye toward earning him the record.
Lest he have a repeat of the Dec. 9 game in which Kittle had 210 receiving yards in the first half and was shut out in the second half to fall 5 yards short of breaking Shannon Sharpe’s record for receiving yards by a tight end in a game, Shanahan was also serious about making sure Kittle finished the job this time.
Shanahan found additional motivation in his desire not to hear about another near miss from Kittle’s parents, who also had a little fun with Shanahan about it.
And now, in just his second NFL season, Kittle’s name already has ascended into the record books as his star does the same.
“It was huge,” Shanahan said. “We were hoping it would work out that way. The way the game went, I didn’t think it would go that way, but at the end he made a few big plays … That’s what he’s been doing all year, so he’s done a hell of a job.”