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NEW ORLEANS — Ten men in white jerseys leaned in closely, straining to hear their leader, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, during the most important play of the most important game of the season for the San Francisco 49ers.
This was late in the fourth quarter of the 49ers’ nationally televised road test against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday afternoon in the Superdome. The 49ers had trailed by as many as 13 points in the first half, only to take a one-point lead right before halftime. And after some second-half back and forth, including a blown nine-point lead in the fourth quarter, they found themselves facing a fourth-and-2, down one, on their own 33-yard line in the NFL’s game of the year.
Amid the distracting clanging and cheering from Saints fans in the loudest environment the 49ers have played in all season — where the media tables, located at the very top of the stadium, were shaking at this point — 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan knew exactly what to call. It was a “choice” route for George Kittle out of a bunch formation in three-wide personnel, one that would allow the All-Pro tight end to decide his route post-snap, thus making the Saints’ choice to use man or zone against him in that moment largely irrelevant.
Garoppolo had other options on the play, which Kittle ripped off for a thundering 39-yard gain that set up a game-winning field goal in San Francisco’s thrilling 48-46 victory. But when asked by Yahoo Sports what would it have taken for him to throw elsewhere, Garoppolo first laughed.
“He would have had to fall,” Garoppolo told Yahoo Sports, his eyes widening.
The opposite happened, of course. After a pre-snap motion revealed that Kittle would likely be getting man coverage from his defender, C.J. Gardner-Johnson, the two receivers in front of Kittle — Emmanuel Sanders and Kendrick Bourne — ran go routes to isolate Kittle on Gardner-Johnson. Sensing an opportunity to find the sliver of daylight he needed, Kittle ran an out route — “It was a pretty easy decision for me,” he said — and ended up creating so much separation that Gardner-Johnson had to make a diving attempt to tackle him (spoiler alert: he failed).
“I knew the guy was in a bad situation on the other side,” Garoppolo said. “George is a beast with the ball in his hands.”
Just like that, Kittle was off to the races. Not just toward a season-making win, it turns out, but also toward an eight-second finish to the play that teammates say encapsulates everything the 6-foot-4, 250-pounder brings to his team.
“Catching it was just the beginning,” 49ers guard Laken Tomlinson told Yahoo Sports. “It’s just amazing what he can do after the catch.”
Amazing indeed, as Kittle first showed off his 4.52 speed by racing 17 yards untouched, then showed off his remarkable power by fighting off three Saints, all while shrugging off a 15-yard facemask penalty, before he was eventually brought down 22 yards after safety Marcus Williams first tried to tackle him at the Saints’ 49-yard line.
The play went viral on Twitter, and teammates shook their heads afterward about their 26-year-old “beastly” teammate who doubles as a team captain.
“He’s a monster,” defensive end DeForest Buckner said. “I don’t care what anybody says — he’s the G.O.A.T.”
Or, as running back Matt Breida told Yahoo Sports: “That was some grown man stuff. To me, he’s gonna be in the Hall of Fame one day. For him to carry those guys on the field to get us in field-goal range was amazing.”
It’s a play that Saints head coach Sean Payton might want to have back schematically. “I’m sure when we watch this tape there are going to be a handful of things that if you play it back over again you try to find a way to make sure he doesn’t beat you in the end,” Payton said of Kittle’s game-breaker.
It was a hard-charging run indicative of the grit Kittle has used to overcome his draft standing — he was a mere fifth-round pick in 2017 — to become an all-around star, one whose run-blocking prowess is the driving force behind the league’s second-ranked rush offense and whose run-after-the-catch ability makes him a matchup nightmare in Shanahan’s turbo-charged play-action pass scheme.
“It’s pretty special, the way his mindset is to punish and finish every single run,” left tackle Joe Staley told Yahoo Sports. “He’s so physical. He’s a really special player, and it’s rubbing off on a lot of other guys, too.”
Perhaps that even includes his quarterback, who earned some important stripes of his own with this win. Garoppolo’s shaky performances in the 49ers’ previous big games led to some fair questions about his ability to win in January, but Garoppolo repeatedly showed championship heart Sunday. In addition to the clutch fourth-and-2 throw to Kittle, Garoppolo also converted a crucial third-and-3 with a little over four minutes left when — after seeing his first two reads weren’t open — he took off for the sideline and, with two Saints closing in, dove for the marker while absorbing a blow from a 234-pound linebacker.
“I was just like, please be OK — that was the main thing,” tight end Garrett Celek, who was standing a foot or two away from where Garoppolo landed on the 49ers sideline, told Yahoo Sports. “And then I was like — did he get the first down?”
The answer, on both accounts, was yes. Garoppolo went on to lead his team to a field goal on that drive, and later led San Fran on the game-winning march that offered proof of the 49ers’ Super Bowl viability.
“I don’t know why everybody on the outside is doubting him, but Jimmy’s the man,” right tackle Mike McGlinchey said. “He’s the only guy we want at the helm, and he showed why, today. The sky’s the limit for him.”
They’ll need it to be, as the 49ers’ road to the all-important NFC West crown — which would allow them to avoid the fifth seed and an opening-round road date against a putrid NFC East winner — will likely require a win against their division foes in Seattle in the regular-season finale. And in that game, Garoppolo will almost surely need to play better than he did the first time those teams met.
However, the possibility of that type of glow-up happening has never looked brighter, not after the gumption the 49ers showed in a raucous environment Sunday in New Orleans. When those two teams meet in a matter of weeks, Garoppolo will still have Shanahan, a brilliant play-caller, dialing up passing concepts that perfectly complement an elite run game, and he’ll also be throwing to his generational tight end, whose epic run-after-the-catch in the NFL’s Game of Year may have wowed the nation, but wasn’t a surprise to the men who watch him everyday.
“That’s George, man,” Tomlinson said, with a shrug. “That’s him.”
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