Well, half-joke. Jimmy Garoppolo’s strong 2019 was thanks, in part, to the tight end who notched his second straight 1,000-yard season. Kittle led San Francisco in targets, receptions, and receiving yards in the regular season by a wide margin despite missing two games due to injury. His 54-yard gain on fourth down against the Saints was the catalyst behind a 48-46 comeback win in New Orleans that ultimately decided homefield advantage in the NFC.
But in the final game of the season, Kittle’s influence was limited. He finished the Super Bowl with only four catches and 36 yards. He had just one catch on one target in what could have been San Francisco’s game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter.
His biggest play of the game didn’t even count; it was called back thanks to a questionable offensive pass interference call.
This shouldn’t have been the case. While the Chiefs paid extra attention to the 49ers’ All-Pro, there were several opportunities where a pass to Kittle would have changed the trajectory of the fourth quarter.
Kittle found holes in the Chiefs’ defense late — but Garoppolo couldn’t find him
Kittle’s emergence as one of the league’s top tight ends has depended on his ability to create space for big gains after the catch. In his breakout 2018, he averaged just a shade under 10 yards per catch. In 2019, he averaged 12.4 yards per catch in 2019 — 5.8 through the air and 7.4 afterward— while 58.9 percent of his yards in the regular season came after he secured the ball.
This was something you’d expect to manifest in the Super Bowl with an array of drags, outs, and curl routes. Instead, the chemistry between quarterback and his top target was off all evening. It was apparent toward the end of the Niners’ first drive of the third quarter.
With San Francisco facing third-and-5, Garoppolo blanked his open tight end beyond the sticks to check down to tailback Tevin Coleman for a 3-yard gain:
George Kittle wide open on third-and-5. instead, Garoppolo checks down and doesn't get the first pic.twitter.com/tK4cCBbOa4— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) February 3, 2020
Rather than go for it on fourth-and-2, head coach Kyle Shanahan settled for a field goal — creating a little extra room for the Kansas City comeback that followed. This would have been a moot point had Garoppolo seen the 250-pound tight end he’d targeted nearly eight times per game.
As it turned out, this was no outlier for the Niners. Instead, it was a symptom of the flaw that derailed their comeback hopes.
Garoppolo missed Kittle on no fewer than three vital fourth-quarter plays
The final quarter started off on the right foot. Garoppolo’s first pass of the fourth quarter was an off-target dart caught by a sliding Kittle for 12 yards. It would prove to be his longest catch of the night. On second-and-9 and then third-and-14, he was a pass blocker flexed back to the pocket in order to clear away blitzers.
It didn’t work on third down, and Garoppolo was flushed to his right before scrambling for a few useless yards. In two clear passing situations, the 49ers had opted to make their No. 1 target an extra blocker. This was a sign of things to come.
San Francisco punted, gave up an 83-yard touchdown drive, and got the ball back with 6:13 to play and a 20-17 lead. That drive would last just three plays before another punt. It also saw a surefire first-down pass to Kittle get swatted down at the line by Chris Jones:
This was a good idea that Garoppolo should have tried again on third down. For the second straight play, he had his tight end open in the middle of the field. But instead of hitting Kittle, the quarterback got shaken by pressure and fired an uncatchable pass in Kendrick Bourne’s direction.
here's Jimmy Garoppolo missing an open George Kittle on third-and-5 in the fourth quarter, just to throw the ball to a guy 5 yards away from Kittle pic.twitter.com/8ib3alZs4f— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) February 4, 2020
This necessitated a punt back to a red-hot Chiefs’ offense. By the time Garoppolo got the ball again, his Niners were trailing, 24-20, in the Super Bowl with 2:44 to play.
The good news is that San Francisco’s drive started off on the right foot. Raheem Mostert gained 17 yards on the ground on first down. Two more plays, including an eight-yard gain from Kittle, got them to midfield with 1:49 left. Then, in what would be the four most important downs of his first Super Bowl start, Garoppolo didn’t look to his star tight end once.
This made sense on first down, where the Chiefs had him blanketed in the middle of the field with double-coverage, and a pass to Deebo Samuel was swatted down at the line of scrimmage.
Kittle had a little more space on second down, but was still shadowed by safety Daniel Sorensen over the middle.
Garoppolo never even glanced his way. He stared down Bourne from the snap, throwing into double-coverage and nearly giving up an interception to a streaking Kendall Fuller. Third down saw Kittle return to the backfield for blitz pickup duties as Shanahan dialed up a big shot downfield. Garoppolo arguably made the right read on that pass — Emmanuel Sanders was open by a solid two steps — but couldn’t make the right throw.
That brought up fourth down, which, ugh. On fourth-and-10 and with the Chiefs’ blitz consistently affecting the Niners QB — he completed just one of nine passes under pressure Sunday — Kittle is motioned back to the backfield to block once more.
Kansas City brought a six-man rush that immediately battered a gassing 49ers offensive line. With the defensive backs all set to defend routes of 10+ yards, this left no one in the middle of the field to latch on to the tight end after he delivered a chip block and trickled out toward the line of scrimmage. As his pocket collapsed, this is what Garoppolo’s options looked like:
Yeah. Kittle was the only player who was even remotely open, as the Niners’ three wideouts were all swallowed by the five defensive backs Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo glued to the first-down line. The tight end’s chip block had left the San Francisco O-line and tailback Raheem Mostert with a six-on-six situation, but even that was too much to handle. The pressure meant Garoppolo couldn’t see his only viable option, and now we’ll never get to know if Kittle could have rumbled 10+ yards as the Kansas City secondary converge on him on his last meaningful play of Super Bowl 54.
Two plays later, Damien Williams broke free for 38 yards and a game-sealing touchdown. The Chiefs won, 31-20, despite trailing 20-10 midway through the fourth quarter.
The Niners may have fallen victim to Patrick Mahomes’ leveled-up fourth-quarter play even if Garoppolo had hit all his open windows late in the contest. Still, San Francisco’s $137 million man had a mostly open Kittle available on at least four different plays late in the fourth quarter. Connecting with him at any point could have swung the balance of the game. In moments when his team desperately needed yards, Kansas City’s pressure kept Garoppolo from even looking his trusty tight end’s way.
The Chiefs deserve credit for finding a way to disrupt that connection, even as they struggled to cover Kittle across the middle of the field. But Garoppolo deserves blame for not leaning harder on his favorite target over the course of the three most important drives of his career.
Sometimes football can be as simple as “get the ball to your best player.” The 49ers couldn’t do that in Super Bowl 54, even as he found gaps in Kansas City’s coverage. That’s a big reason why they couldn’t hold off the Chiefs for their first world championship in 25 years.