SANTA CLARA — George Kittle was in in character after a 37-20 win Saturday over the Washington Commanders.
He wore a Santa hat, a red sweater with the word `nice’ and was loose and lively as usual, regaling the assembled media with the story of how he stole a touchdown from teammate Ray-Ray McCloud.
It came on a 33-yard pass to the post from quarterback Brock Purdy, who believed he was throwing the ball to McCloud.
Kittle’s job was to cross the field, thereby opening up the area for McCloud. Instead, Kittle’s eyes got big and he got greedy.
“Wide open space,” Kittle said. “I’m not going to run and get covered . . . When (McCloud) got over my shoulder I thought it was the safety trying to get the ball and it actually scared me. The he said, `You stole my touchdown.’ ”
Everybody had a good laugh, which is standard operating procedure when Kittle is around. The touchdown gave the 49ers’ a 14-7 lead in the third quarter, and he added a 48-yard catch and run off a reverse roll by Purdy to put the 49ers up 21-7.
It’s a good sign for the 49ers that Kittle is somewhere near his physical peak, or as close as one can be as a tight end in the NFL. He caught six passes for 120 yards and two touchdowns — his second straight game with two scores.
He is delivering aches and pains rather than receiving them, and it’s showing in his play. It hasn’t taken rookie quarterback Brock Purdy long to figure out Kittle is a game-changer, just as Kittle was for Jimmy Garoppolo or any other quarterback when healthy.
“He makes my job easy,” Purdy said. “He wins man-to-man matchups. You give him a good ball, he’ll take off. George is extremely explosive, more than people think. He does a great job after the catch and that’s where my mindset is at. I go through my progression, but I know if I get the ball to George it could be an explosive play.”
Kittle is coming off a four-catch, 93-yard game in Seattle with two touchdowns. And while Kittle has had bigger days and bigger games, they don’t often occur this late in the season. Few players work as hard at maintaining their bodies, but Kittle in recent years has been less than 100 percent as the season winds down.
How does he feel now?
“It feels wonderful,” Kittle said. “Coach Shanahan always says you build a callous throughout the year, your body gets used to the hits, you get used to the grind. But not having to deal with an Achillies’ (last year), or random knee stuff, I’ve been very fortunate. You’ve got to get lucky in football sometimes.”
Kittle came out of training camp with a groin strain that cost him the first two games, and when he did return to action didn’t look like the same player who had back-to-back seasons of 1,377 yards in 2018 and 1,053 in 2019 that enabled him to cash in with a five-year, $75 million contract extension.
Fast forward to the last two weeks, and Kittle looks as good as ever.
“He started out the year a little banged up, and it took a him a little time to come back and be in football shape,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “But he’s playing great now in the run and pass game and it’s great to get him some balls even the one he intercepted from Ray-Ray.”
Following the game, Kittle talked about how the 49ers draw strength from edge rusher Nick Bosa, who added two more sacks and foiled a two-point conversion with another against Washington.
The same could be said for Kittle. He plays with an enthusiastic physicality that teammates find contagious.
Jingle Bell Brock!@brockpurdy13 x @gkittle46
📺 #WASvsSF on CBS
📱 NFL+ https://t.co/KTh0i461x9 pic.twitter.com/sXz2V1FRMo
— San Francisco 49ers – x (@49ers) December 24, 2022
“Kittle is a great leader. Guys corral around him. He brings great energy every day,” defensive tackle Arik Armstead said. “He’s fun. He’s nerdy at times which makes it a lot of fun to be around him and he sets the tone week in and week out even when it doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. He’s a presence.”
Purdy whose locker is near the same corner as Kittle in the 49ers locker room, relies on the tight end to keep things from getting overly serious.
“Sometimes if we get uptight he’s the guy who’s going to put a smile on your face so I’m very fortunate to have him in the locker room. He brings great energy and good vibes.”
Kittle very nearly had a third touchdown in the fourth quarter, but he caught Purdy’s low pass at the 1-yard line. That set up a 1-yard score by Christian McCaffrey. Kittle, who went to Iowa, isn’t shy about needling Purdy about having gone to rival Iowa State.
“I threw it a little short, but you can’t give a Hawkeye too many touchdowns in a game,” Purdy said.
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