Kyle Shanahan is often credited for his innovative play calling and his ability to dissect opposing defenses. Atlanta Falcons tight end Austin Hooper recently called Shanahan a “fortune teller” after highlighting his knack for predicting which plays will pop on gameday. The San Francisco 49ers star tight end feels no different.
In Week 4 against the Los Angeles Chargers, Shanahan drew up a play during the week designed to open up the field for George Kittle. The quarterback was to look the safety off, and as long as Kittle could keep his balance, he would find the end zone. Just as Shanahan envisioned, quarterback C.J. Beathard found his tight end wide open for an 82-yard touchdown.
Another example of Shanahan’s foretelling happened in Week 14 during Kittle’s historic performance against the Denver Broncos. That game, the tight end racked up a career-high 210 yards and a touchdown. Shanahan anticipated the Broncos linebacker to bite on a Marquise Goodwin jet sweep to open up the field for another hefty gain by his tight end. A wide open Kittle made a cut up the middle and blew past four defenders for an 85-yard touchdown.
“The worst is when he calls them out and then something happens whether it’s a false start or a guy trips and falls or defense makes a good play, because they should work,” Kittle said to reporters on Tuesday. “He makes a couple of those every week, and it’s just incredible because most of the time, it works.”
Shanahan’s prognosis of opposing defenses played a big part in Kittle’s breakout season in 2018. The tight end broke the single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end with 1,377 and set a franchise record for the most single-season receptions by a tight end with 88.
Despite the gaudy figures, Kittle alone could not carry the 49ers offense. San Francisco has struggled to convert in the red zone over the past two seasons and ranked 20th and 21st, respectively, in points per game. Only 12 percent of drives have ended in points during that time span.
Kittle revealed that the red zone has been a point of emphasis so far throughout the 49ers offseason program. With a healthy Jimmy Garoppolo at the helm and a revamped supporting cast, San Francisco hopes to improve on its offensive efficiency heading into 2019.
“As a team, we left a lot of plays out there,” Kittle said of the 49ers pass catchers. “You can’t win games if you don’t score, unless it’s the (Chicago) Bears game where we had five field goals. But you don’t want to win like that. You want to score points. When you’ve got a guy like Jimmy G throwing the ball, with his accuracy and his timing, you’ve got to make those plays. So that’s something we’re really working on.”
San Francisco anticipates seeing an early return on its offseason investments. The 49ers added two young and versatile receivers in Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd in the 2019 NFL Draft. The 49ers also added Tevin Coleman, one of Shanahan’s former pupils who excelled under his coaching with the Atlanta Falcons in 2015-16. San Francisco is also eager to get Jerick McKinnon back in the fold following an ACL tear last season.
Kittle is more than willing to spread the love in the stat sheet if it results in an improved record overall.
“If we’re winning games, I can have no catches. As long as I do well in the run game, then I’ll be happy,” he added. “I’m not really a guy that sets personal goals. I’m just going to wait till coach Shanahan tells me what plays I’m going to catch and run for 80 yards, and I’ll take advantage of those plays.”