clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Secret to George Kittle’s Creative Destruction

The 49ers tight end craves contact. One day, a coach told him to stop running out of bounds and to run through people. The result: a lot of broken tackles, yards after the catch, and helpless defenders.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

George Kittle decided to be a badass one day and never stopped. It happened in the summer of 2017 when his tight ends coach, Jon Embree, told him to stop getting tackled. Everyone agreed this was ludicrous, including 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan. “He’d say, ‘You can’t go out of bounds there, they can’t tackle you.’ And I’d say, ‘OK, Jon, we get it, but this is kind of ridiculous. You’re going to lose him if you keep saying that when it’s impossible.’”

Embree did not relent. Kittle was, at best, skeptical. “One of the first things he said was never run out of bounds. ‘Turn upfield. They will get out of your way. If they don’t get out of your way, run them over,’” Kittle said. “So I said to him, ‘Well”—he paused—“they are going to tackle me?” But Embree persisted. Again, everyone was quite confused.

“Jon never wavered, because he was doing it to the right guy,” Shanahan said. “George, at some point, thought, ‘You’re right, they can’t tackle me.’”

That “some point” has an exact date: August 19, 2017, in a preseason game against the Denver Broncos. “I turn upfield, and there’s a guy standing there. I said, ‘Screw it, I’m just gonna run,’ and the guy just kind of fell over,” Kittle said. “I ended up in the end zone, and I probably should have been pushed out of bounds. So I thought, ‘Wow, I get it. If you just run at people they just kinda tend to get out of your way.’”

The NFL is one of the most competitive places in human history. Each of its teams is worth a billion dollars. Coaches spend hundreds of hours each week looking for an edge. No sport is as scrutinized or overanalyzed. And sometimes, the league changes when a fifth-round draft pick from Iowa says, “Screw it, I’m just gonna run.”

The guy standing in Kittle’s way in that Broncos game was cornerback Chris Lewis-Harris, whom Kittle trucked right before brushing off a shove from safety Orion Stewart. The names and numbers of the players keep changing, but the play is usually the same: Kittle charging straight ahead and a defender failing to reckon with this fact. I explain that this moment in August 2017 sounds a bit like a superhero origin story. “Learning how it all works,” Kittle said. “Like Spider-Man jumping off a building.”

“Yeah. It does,” Kittle continues as he nods. “And it clicked even more my second year. They do get out of your way. It’s pretty fun.”

It’s outrageous to think that Kittle decided to start breaking tackles and then became the best at it. It’s as if Steph Curry had decided to start launching 3-pointers only a few years ago because a coach told him he might be good at it. Kittle is not only good at avoiding tackles—he is the absolute best in the NFL.

Kittle plays with a frantic energy that has made him the league’s best tight end. Last season, he set an NFL record for receiving yards by a tight end. He blends athleticism and destruction so seamlessly that he’s earned comparisons to Rob Gronkowski, including from the man himself. This year, Kittle is a major part of the offensive engine of the 11-3 Niners, one of the best teams in the league. It is a triumph of self-belief and also a triumph of being 250 pounds, 6-foot-4, and running over 20 mph.

“I just had the sense that people were going to struggle to tackle him,” Embree said. “There is something in him that makes people not want to tackle him.” Well, he was right: According to Pro Football Focus, Kittle had more yards after the catch last season than any wide receiver or tight end the site has ever tracked. In the past two seasons, Kittle has averaged 8.8 yards after the catch per reception. This is not only the most—it’s 1.6 yards per play more than anyone else. Since Kittle entered the league in 2017, no player has more yards after the catch above expectation, according to Next Gen Stats.

“His mind-set is not, ‘I’m going to score,’ or, ‘I want to get as many yards as possible.’ It is, ‘I want to destroy whoever is in front of me,’” receiver Dante Pettis said. “That’s why he stiff-arms and runs people over. He wants to destroy whoever is in the path.”

Niners tackle Mike McGlinchey can speak for everyone: “I have never seen anything like it.”

Kittle can make defenders look like they’ve never attempted a tackle before. When they miss, they sometimes react as if it is the most frustrating thing in the world—perhaps because it is. The last decade of football has featured smaller defensive players, adjusting to faster, spread offenses. Strict limits on tackling in practice, and practice time, has led to, at least anecdotally, worse tackling. Kittle has taken these trends and run them over. He said he wants to run in a way that forces defensive backs into “creative angles.” This is code for an angle in which Kittle will destroy them.

Creative angles led Kittle to a 2018 game against the Broncos. “All of their DBs took creative angles. I don’t think I really got hit at all, and I had like 200 yards,” he explains. Kittle talks about owning defenders in a nonchalant tone, the way most people describe ordering something from Amazon. “You can tell if a guy is running full speed at you at a downhill angle. Yeah, he’s going to bring it on me, and I’ll lower my shoulder, and we’ll see who wins,” Kittle said. But the Broncos, despite being dunked on twice already in this story, are not Kittle’s Washington Generals. He does this to everyone. This brings him to this season’s Saints game in Week 14, which has become his most famous moment on the field. “In the Saints game, I caught the ball, turn upfield. I run at the guy, and he slowed down instead of coming at me. So I knew he was just going to try to push me out of bounds and not be very physical at it. So you run at him and then just kinda run past him. He’s lucky he got my face mask.”

McGlinchey said that Saints game was “Peak George.” If Kittle’s broken-tackle story started against Denver in 2017, it was perfected in New Orleans. On a fourth-and-2, with 39 seconds left and the Niners scrambling to get in position for a game-winning field goal attempt, Kittle not only converted the first down but gained 39 yards, most of which came after the catch. Kittle said he knew the Niners still had timeouts, so he could stay in bounds—that, of course, is all he needed to know. “[The safety] slowed down, and I knew I was going to bring some pain.” He was such a force on the play that Saints safety Marcus Williams grabbed Kittle’s face mask in a bid to bring him down, leading to a 15-yard penalty. The Niners calmly kicked a field goal to win 48-46 in one of the best games of the year.

“He got lucky he held on,” Kittle said of Williams. “’Cause I was going to throw him to the ground.”

Watching the play from the backfield was quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. “Once I saw he had about 2 yards on the guy, it was over, so I just wanted to get him the ball as fast as possible,” he said. “I literally saw him turn it up the field, and I know it sounds crazy, but in my head, I said, ‘Oh, that’s game.’”

On September 22, 2007, Iowa lost 17-13 at Wisconsin. Pat Angerer, a sophomore linebacker, didn’t play despite a long list of Hawkeyes injuries. The coaches burned a freshman’s redshirt instead of playing Angerer. He was devastated. “The next day, I looked in the mirror and said, ‘It’s not their fault, it’s not his fault, it’s your fucking fault.’ I took ownership of where I was at in life and on the field,” said Angerer, who eventually developed into an All–Big Ten selection and a second-round pick in 2010. This game—played by a forgettable Hawkeyes team five years before Kittle even stepped foot on campus—helped change the course of the NFL in 2019.

In 2015, Angerer was back at Iowa working out in the Hawkeyes weight room when Kittle, then a junior, approached him. Even though he played a different position, Kittle was in the same scenario that Angerer had been in. The Hawkeyes had played Tennessee in a bowl game a few months prior, and younger players got reps ahead of Kittle. He felt uncertain about his career and asked Angerer what changed for him. “I stopped being an asshole,” Angerer told him. “I quit getting drunk and getting in fights downtown. I made Iowa football the most important thing in my life.” Kittle said that was the moment when he started to focus on football. “Whether it was the partying stuff, or whatever, just chilled out on that,” he said.

Embree said he likes players who have been on a “journey.” If they’ve struggled or failed at some point in their careers, they can handle his coaching style. “And the pressure of trying to not get cut,” Embree said, which he finds crucial to motivating players. Kittle has been on a journey. I asked him what he considers to be the biggest moments in that journey, and he pointed to Angerer’s advice, Embree’s directive, and his first day on Iowa’s campus, when strength coach Chris Doyle told him that if he couldn’t run-block, he would never play at Iowa.

“I didn’t see this as a seminal moment,” Doyle told me. “It was just, ‘Hey, George, you’re going to have to be a better run blocker if you’re going to be a tight end, like the guys who came before you. Dallas Clark, C.J. Fiedorowicz. I don’t think he quite understood what it was going to take.”

Doyle said he’ll never forget Kittle’s weigh-in as a freshman on June 8, 2012. “He was 200 pounds,” Doyle said. “When he left, he was 6-4, 250.” Doyle said Kittle was offered a scholarship to play at Iowa based on his potential—he was undersized, and his high school didn’t feature him a lot in the passing game. Kittle’s father, Bruce, is a former Iowa captain who taught George at an early age how to block and worked in pads with George as early as elementary school. But it wasn’t until Iowa that it all came together. Once Kittle became an adept run blocker, and after the conversation with Angerer, he finally learned to love contact. “I used to be so soft in high school. I avoided contact. I played free safety in a Cover-1 and was back all the time. It was my decision to change that,” Kittle said. “I realized if I kept playing soft, I was never going to see the field. I have choice words for my 18-year-old self.”

In his first start in 2015, against Illinois State, he started hitting people. And he loved it. “I had a base block of a guy who was an [FCS] All-American the year before. I drove him 15 yards back and planted him on his back, and I said, ‘Well, I’m just going to do that every single time now.’” He learned at that moment how much he enjoyed inflicting damage. He thought that very few players played physically for the entire game, and there was an inefficiency that he could exploit.

“I might get got once or twice. But you’re going to get got the whole game,” Kittle said.

Embree said Kittle loves wrestling, and Embree previously coached a wrestling fan in Browns tight end Gary Barnidge. “If you like wrestling, you like contact and physical things, and I wanted to play into that,” Embree said. “If you’re saying, ‘Hey, this is cool, this [wrestler] flipping,’ then it’s about unleashing that. Unleashing the wrestler and bringing it out on the field. You have to give guys the latitude to be who they are. When you see George with the ball, he’s being who he is.”

Embree thinks three plays describe Kittle: Denver in 2017, the Saints catch from this season, and a 2018 Rams game in which Kittle briefly carried one Ram on his back and stiff-armed cornerback Marcus Peters. “Now, I think, ‘Just run through them, and they’ll avoid you.’ It’s OK. They don’t have to tackle me,” Kittle said. “I’m going to make them tackle me, and if they want to tackle me, I’m going to make it as hard as I possibly can on them to see if they want to keep tackling me.” 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk said he marvels at how often Kittle approaches what appears to be a “nice collision” and keeps running without receiving much of a hit. And when there is contact, he’s OK with that.

“There are times when a receiver flinches before he’s about to be hit. George never does that,” said tight end Garrett Celek. “He never flinches. He’s never afraid to put himself in a vulnerable position to make a play. George is a savage.”

Bruce Kittle, a former assistant at Oklahoma, told me he did not see his son progressing this quickly. “He’s almost a completely different guy from OTAs in 2017 until now. No one saw this coming.” I heard George’s mom, Jan, through the phone, so Bruce corrected his previous statement that no one saw this coming. “Except his mom,” Bruce said.

You’ll often hear about Kittle’s relentless positivity. It’s mostly true, except I did see him get upset once in our limited time together, when a 49ers employee brought up Game of Thrones, a show he adores. “I completely ignore Season 8 ever happened—worst season in the history of television. That was awful,” Kittle said. He said he was pissed off just talking about it.

Kittle has a lot of takes. “I’m a Lord of the Rings junkie. Sam and Frodo are the two best, their whole journey, everything they go through. Love Aragorn. I just like the mystical part of it—the huge battles,” said Kittle, whose father read him the books at least three times. “I’m a diehard Harry Potter guy. Not really the movies. The books are the best.”

Kittle’s wife, Claire, loves Madam Secretary, but he doesn’t. After a back-and-forth about popular television shows, we get to Homeland. “Oh, Homeland,” Kittle said, exasperated. He brings up the show’s main character, a CIA agent named Carrie Mathison, played by Claire Danes. “Everytime I watch an episode I say, ‘OK, she should be fired. I can’t get through it.’”

Given Kittle’s strong opinions about television, it should not be much of a surprise that Garoppolo said Kittle often says things that have nothing to do with football on the sideline. “There are times I say, ‘What the hell?’” Garoppolo said with a smile. Fellow tight end Ross Dwelley said Kittle could not stop speaking in a faux-Canadian accent on the sideline for a time because of his love of a viral YouTube video from Pardon My Take. “He does it a lot. He really thinks he’s Canadian,” Dwelley said.

Kittle has a massive tattoo of Heath Ledger’s Joker on his arm. (He loved the most recent Joker starring Joaquin Phoenix. “Super dark and depressing. I don’t know if I can ever watch it again, but it was incredible.” He says he thinks Mark Hamill was a great Joker, and he stores the classic Batman cartoons on his phone for road trips.) He slaps the tattoo when he’s on the field to get focused. He plans to get an even bigger, Halo-themed tattoo on his back in 2020. He’s become fanatical, he said, about his routine in the past few years and has to spend his nights on Friday and Saturday flipping a switch to get focused for the game. “I headbutt a wall, I puke, and the Joker tattoo is kind of a switch for me. I slap it before plays. I’m big into the visual parts,” Kittle said.

At Iowa, he used to put a piece of red tape on his arm as a “reset” button that he’d hit after a mistake. He thinks that football is 90 percent mental and that everyone who makes the league is talented, so the difference between greatness and mediocrity is in a lot of small edges, most of them mental. He spends three hours by himself the night before games. He meditates, he takes a salt bath, and he visualizes—his father, Bruce, said George has been doing that since about fifth grade. Bruce said it’s easier to, say, go into New Orleans in front of a loud crowd and dominate if you’ve already been there in your head.

Some marriages seem to be created in the football heavens. It seems impossible for anyone but Andy Reid to coach Patrick Mahomes and that perfectly designed Chiefs offense. It boggles the mind that Drew Brees was ever coached by someone other than Sean Payton, who masterfully maps out the Saints’ efficient offense. Kittle and Shanahan are in that category: No one creates space like Shanahan, and no one does more with space than Kittle. Shanahan uses play-action effectively, and Kittle is open on a surprisingly regular basis for such a dominant player.

“I always mess with him that he can improve so much more on his routes, and he can, but most of the time, it doesn’t matter with George,” Shanahan told me. “He’s proven me wrong on that. It’s like, ‘Yeah, I could run a better route here, but just give me the ball in my hands because I care what happens after the catch.’ A lot of times, that doesn’t work out, but with George, it does. He’s willed his way into a lot of situations. The harder it gets, the more clutch he ends up being.”

Shanahan was looking for a pass-catching tight end in 2017 when he saw Kittle on tape. “He didn’t do that a lot in college, but he looked good when he did,” Shanahan said. “We couldn’t believe how good of a run blocker he was. Then we realized that everyone was calling him a run blocker because he didn’t have the passing stats. We were impressed with how all-around he was.”

Kittle, Shanahan said, “allows us to do stuff in the run game we haven’t done before because of how much he can handle on his own, whether it’s gap schemes or outside zone schemes.”

Having a huge person running very fast on the field is not an accident for the Niners. They have exploited a trend: As the league has gotten smaller, they’ve emphasized size.

“Defenses are always trying to compensate for the offenses, which means smaller, faster linebackers. There are three-receiver sets; teams are spreading the ball out. We put two running backs out there a ton, 22 personnel, two tight ends. Those linebackers have to match up with us in smaller spaces, and we feel like that gives us an advantage to push us around,” the team’s fullback, Juszczyk, said. “As the game progresses, I think it wears teams down. With George, it’s basically pick your poison. Guys good at the run game and blocking like that usually can’t run routes like that.” The Niners proved their commitment to size when they signed Juszczyk to the biggest-ever deal for a fullback in March 2017.

This dovetails nicely with the Kittle family’s size and offensive line background. Bruce said he was influenced, in part, by his former Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz’s mentor, longtime offensive line coach Joe Moore. Bruce cites Moore’s famous quote: “There is no greater joy in life than moving a man from point A to point B against his will.”

This, of course, has shown up in George. I asked him the best he’s ever felt on a football field. “My senior year against Nebraska,” Kittle said. (He tells me that he has “choice words” for Nebraska football in general, but did not expand.) “We were winning 33-10, all the seniors on the field. We ran eight plays, ran [two tight ends, two running backs] and we ran 23 breeze—which is an inside run zone—toward me eight plays in a row, down the field, at 8 yards a pop, through their face. And on play nine, we ran power load, and I pancaked two guys on the play. That was one of the most satisfying moments for me. We completely physically broke them the entire game. One of my favorite parts was that their defensive end had a big curly mustache, because he thought he was really cool, and I put him on his back like three times. So that was very fun for me.

“I enjoy football,” he said. He talked a bit about the lessons his dad taught him about enjoying the game. Bruce, George said, taught him that “football is its own living, breathing organism. You don’t cut corners and you don’t cheat football, because it will always come and get you. Football is the ultimate truth.”

We know that George does not cut corners to get where he is going. He runs directly through people.

NFL

How Did the Dolphins Go From Being an NFL Blueprint to a Directionless Mess?

NFL

How Will Baker Mayfield’s Injury-Marred Season Impact the Browns’ Extension Decision?

The Ringer NFL Show

Has Sean McVay Changed Football?

View all stories in NFL