As soon as Kyle Shanahan said that he planned on playing San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle on Saturday against the Arizona Cardinals, fans lost it. Rob Guererra told us it was a bad idea in his Stats and Eggs Wednesday morning. Later on, you’ll hear why Akash believes it’s borderline “coaching malpractice” to play Kittle.
I disagree with all of that.
Before we make the argument for why Kittle should play, here is Kyle’s quote from Tuesday:
“If he’s healthy, I just don’t see the reason why not to. That’s the same as every other player on our roster. If you’re healthy and you’re not risking something, I mean, we would never ask him to play injured or anything like that, but he had a good week of practice last week. Most of the soreness was going away, and we’re definitely going to test it again this week. But, when you have a guy, if he’s a hundred percent healthy and stuff, how do you sit one guy and then look at everybody else in the eye on the team?
There probably isn’t anybody playing out there a hundred percent healthy right now. So, when you are, there’s a respect level that players have towards each other, and everyone goes through this whole thing. Players risk, every time they step on the field, no matter who you are, you’re risking your career. That’s what’s tough about this sport, and that’s why I don’t think players get paid enough, even though a lot of people would disagree with me on that.
There’s not many people in the world that can do what you do, and you’re risking your future every time you go out there, and that’s no different for George. It’s no different for all the other 52 guys on our roster. So, obviously, I don’t want to get George hurt or anything like that, and that’s why we’re going to be overly cautious with it, and that’s why we have been, but if someone’s a hundred percent healthy, I can’t look the rest of the team in the eye and tell them they have to play, but George doesn’t. So, that’s just part of having a team and part of treating people the right way.”
I understand the resistance to Kittle playing and the argument that superstar players get different treatment. Part of that conversation centers around this being a professional sport. The highest-paid tight end in NFL history isn’t going to be treated like a sixth-round tight end out of Georgia. Plus, as Shanahan mentioned, it’s a struggle for the 49ers to field a full team.
The example I used was the Los Angeles Clippers in the NBA this past season. Their superstar, Kawhi Leonard, was reportedly given treatment that nobody else on the team was afforded. Leonard showed up late to practice at times, flew in and out of LA on game day or practice, and wasn’t a part of “the team.” Players notice that and start to ask questions.
What Shanahan was saying above speaks about the team culture. Kittle is healthy. I’ve seen him run. He looks like No. 85. We have to assume that Kittle is healthy. Knowing that Kittle is healthy, you’re going to get some funny looks when you address the team, and they see Kittle isn’t playing. Shanahan mentioned that he’d have to pull the likes of Fred Warner, Trent Williams, and perhaps another one of his best players if he were to give Kittle the “superstar” treatment.
Treating every player the same goes a long way. A lot of analysis ignores the human element. It also skips over Kittle being isolated in Arizona from his family and football being the one activity he can do. From creating the correct culture to accountability. I think many fans would be surprised to know that Shanahan does not hold back when it comes to “punishment.” If Richard Sherman doesn’t do his job, Kyle is going to tell him about it. If Dontae Johnson doesn’t do his job, Kyle is going to tell him about it. The players have said they each appreciate how open and “real” Shanahan is toward them.
Not playing a healthy player isn’t in the cards for this team and that’s not how Shanahan and the 49ers operate. When we throw out “there’s an injury risk” in a game where the best athletes in the world are running into each other full speed on each play, you’re not adding anything to the conversation. These players don’t have that same mindset. This is their job and their livelihood. The 49ers not having anything to play for doesn’t change the fact that there’s an injury risk.
In the case of Kittle, if he’s healthy, he’ll play. Why? Because that’s what football players do. Do you think tanking or injury has crossed Kittle’s mind? I doubt it. He’s wired in a way where he’s thinking about getting on the field. It’s not about money, since Kittle’s 2020 salary is fully guaranteed. Healthy players play. Kittle is healthy, so he’ll play. Football players and coaches want to win. Kittle gives San Francisco the best chance to win when he is on the field. No matter what we think, that’s what the team sets out to do, and they’re doing it.