When the San Francisco 49ers played the Denver Broncos in Week 14, George Kittle’s 210 receiving yards in the first half left him five yards short of the record for most receiving yards by a tight end in a single game. He had a half of football to play to get the required yardage totals to pass Shannon Sharpe in the record books. Five yards was all he needed.
Kittle didn’t have a single catch the second half.
Apologies came from 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan for not getting Kittle the ball and the record. That wasn’t happening again on Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams. When the 49ers took the field one final time, Kittle needed a handful of yards to break a record set earlier that same day by Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce: the most receiving yards by a tight end in a single season — a record set by New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski in 2011.
This time the 49ers—and Kittle—were ready.
“[Kyle Shanahan] was like, ‘OK, you got this play and this play, try to make it happen. So it’s on you now.’” Kittle said in his post game press conference with the media. “I just said, “Hey, thank you for the opportunity.””
Failure wouldn’t be on Kyle Shanahan’s shoulders this time. Kittle took the field in what would be the 49ers final offensive drive (not counting a kneel to end the game) needing nine more yards. The first play from scrimmage was a six yard pass play. Three more yards remained.
The next play, Kittle not only broke the record, but added some extra cushioning to make it harder for whoever would try to break this thing again. Another 40 yards of cushioning, and a touchdown to put an exclamation point on it.
“Definitely going into that last drive,” Kittle recalled. “They were, ‘Hey you need nine yards, so make it 15.’ I just said ‘I’ll take it into the end zone, I guess.’”
The 49ers’ coaching staff weren’t the only ones dialing up Kittle. Quarterback Nick Mullens also wanted to be sure the record got set.
“Nick said, ‘I’m going to throw you the ball no matter what.’ I really appreciate that,” Kittle said when recalling the support of his quarterback going into the final drive.
“So he was nine yards away,” Mullens said in his post-game press conference when asked about the drive. “We were like, ‘OK, we’ll throw a hitch, let him catch it, get upfield.’ Pre-snap and they throw a backer out there, and we’re like, ‘Ok, they aren’t going to let him get the record.’ But, we’re like, ‘Screw it, we’re throwing it to him.’ So he got eight yards. So now it’s like, OK, two yards. This guy deserves the record, we’re throwing the freaking ball. And then he caught it and finished his season with a touchdown.”
The hints of the Rams not wanting Kittle to get the record can also be linked to their offensive drive preceding the 49ers offense’s return to the field. On fourth and four on the 49ers’ 47-yards line, with a sizable lead and the game out of reach, the Rams got aggressive. They went for it via a handoff to running back John Kelly. The 49ers defense stuffed them for a loss.
“[Our defense] was aware [of the record],” cornerback Richard Sherman said in his post-game press conference. “The coaches told them, ‘You gotta get this stop for him. So he can get his chance at it.’ I think everyone was aware of it through most of the game. It got out of hand early and guys were just trying to get him the ball back.”
Kittle finishes 2018 with 1,377 receiving yards. On Sunday, he also set a 49ers team record for most receptions by a tight end in a single season with 88. And that’s not all, Kittle also holds the NFL record for most yards after catch (YAC) in a single season (all positions).
“It’s a storybook finish for George,” Mullens said. “We’re really excited he broke the record.”