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George Kittle Wasn’t Even Supposed To Be There

10:40 AM EST on January 23, 2023

George Kittle catches a pass
Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

One touchdown made the difference in the 49ers' win over the Cowboys on Sunday, but those seven points were a long time coming. In the first three quarters of the game, the Niners moved the ball well enough to keep pace with a stifled Dallas offense, but with double-backup QB Brock Purdy under center, they never displayed the pop to go the length of the field against one of the few defenses that rivaled their own. San Francisco's first two possessions ended with a punt; an interception in Cowboys territory gave them just a field goal; and then two more Robbie Gould kicks, from 47 and 50 yards, made the score 9-6 at the break. The Cowboys managed to tie it up after a fumble on a Niners punt return, and that put the pressure on San Francisco's offense to deliver more than they'd shown so far.

With the ball on SF's own 21, Purdy rolled out from play action and threw a pass down the middle that looked just a bit too long for George Kittle to haul in. The ball hit off his outstretched right hand, then his helmet, then both his hands, and then finally, as he twisted to avoid a heavy collision with an oncoming Trevon Diggs, Kittle stretched and completed the 30-yard gain. A series of medium-distance run plays got the Niners their TD a few minutes later, and the Cowboys never caught up.

At first glance, this is a play made possible by athleticism and some goofy randomness, and that's definitely the case. But it also took a bit of initiative from an unintended receiver, and some vision and decisiveness by the rookie signal-caller. Kittle wasn't even meant to be an option on that play—he was just a phony blocker on play action—but after his part was finished, he found himself with some room downfield. Purdy, unpressured after his rollout, didn't like any of his three intended options—Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel, then Kyle Juszczyk—so instead he tossed it over to Kittle.

"I'm not in the read at all," Kittle said after the win. "Brock is a good quarterback who keeps his eyes up when the play is falling apart, and his No. 1 and his No. 2 wasn't open, so for him to look back inside to see a white glove hand fly up and give me a shot at the ball, that's just really good quarterback play."

The success of this play speaks to the difficulty of defending the 49ers and their many, many weapons: Lock down a play's top three options, force the rookie QB to check down his entire progression, and there's still a two-time All-Pro tight end to worry about. The story of the Niners' run to the NFC title game is the story of a team that's so good in every other aspect that they're the rare Super Bowl contender that barely needs anything but the most basic of competence from their QB. This game was more of the same, as the Niners won the turnover battle, held Dallas to just 282 total yards, rushed for 113 of their own, only committed three penalties, and went four-for-four on their kicks. But Purdy, as limited as he is when compared to Mahomes, Burrow, or Hurts, still needs to be a sentient human being sometimes, and the fact that he was able to improvise successfully in a high-pressure moment bodes well for the Niners as they face down their most difficult challenge of the season.

"Playoff football, any game, really, in the NFL, you can't afford to be throwing the ball up or fumbling or anything like that, obviously," Purdy said. "But when so much is on the line and you know everyone is going to be playing their best football, every drive and every moment matters."

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