49ers TE George Kittle not sorry for ‘stealing’ touchdown from WR Ray-Ray McCloud as his chemistry with QB Brock Purdy grows

Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

49ers tight end George Kittle left a football version of a lump of coal in one of his teammate’s stockings on Saturday, and he doesn’t seem the least bit sorry he did it.

Kittle caught two touchdown passes in the 49ers’ 37-20 win over the Washington Commanders on Saturday, but the first one wasn’t supposed to go to him at all. It was intended for wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud, but Kittle swooped in and took it, giving him a 34-yard touchdown that put the 49ers up 14-7 over the Commanders early in the third quarter.

Video of the play shows Kittle and McCloud both running to the spot where Purdy threw the ball, but Kittle beat McCloud to the play, while McCloud was left wondering where Kittle came from and what he was doing.

Kittle, McCloud, Purdy, and head coach Kyle Shanahan all told the same story after the game — that the play was set up to go to McCloud and had been practiced for McCloud, but that Kittle saw an opening and went for it. Kittle openly admitted after the game that he (in his words) “grinched” McCloud on the play, but he seemed to be perfectly fine with that.

“I think I’ve had five touchdowns taken away by penalties so I’m going to get them whenever they’re available,” Kittle said.

Shanahan told reporters that Kittle “intercepted” the pass from McCloud, and that fortunately McCloud didn’t try to do the same.

“Kittle’s supposed to go across the field,” Shanahan said. “Ray-Ray’s supposed to run a post. The middle of the field was wide open. Kittle’s natural reaction was to go to wide open spots. I think that’s probably why Brock hesitated a quick sec — because it just looked weird with two guys there. But he still let it rip. I’m just glad that Ray-Ray didn’t try to intercept it from him at that time.”

The touchdown would have been the second of the game for McCloud, who scored on a 71-yard run in the first half. But he had no problem with Kittle getting the score and made the wise decision not to compete with Kittle for the pass and possibly break up a big play.

“I saw him a little early, so I’m like ‘Damn George, where’re you going?’ But he was a little closer to me so I wasn’t going to jump him to go get it and then the ball is all over the place,” McCloud said in his postgame media session. “But like I said, I’m a team-first guy. It’s not a me in win. And that’s all it’s about — getting that W at the end of the day.”

Video shows McCloud wrapping his arms around Kittle after the catch, which Kittle thought at first was a defender trying to make a play on the ball. But Kittle quickly found out it was McCloud and from there made it clear he was sorry/not sorry for being the one to get the touchdown.

“When he got over my shoulder I thought it was the safety trying to get the ball out,” Kittle said. “It actually scared me. Then he was in my ear going, ‘You stole my touchdown.’ I was like, ‘Ahh, my bad’ — not really.”

Kittle finished Saturday’s game with six catches for 120 yards and two touchdowns. It was the best statistical performance of the year for Kittle, who has 10 catches for 213 yards and four touchdowns over the past two games after going through a bit of a dry spell for much of the middle of the season. Kittle’s performances the past two weeks suggest he’s building a strong rapport with Purdy, who has made it a point to get Kittle involved in the offense since taking over for the injured Jimmy Garoppolo on December 4.

“He told me he was going to feed me and that’s what he’s doing,” Kittle said. “He’s just getting the ball to us. He’s great with the football. He puts it on target. He allows guys to run with it. He’s super savvy in the backfield, makes guys miss. His confidence is through the roof right now, and I don’t know why it wouldn’t be. He’s playing really well. I think he has a really good grasp on this offense.”

Purdy said Saturday he knows Kittle has the ability to score on any given catch, which is why he’s been making sure to keep Kittle in mind whenever he’s in a position to make a play.

“He makes my job easy,” Purdy said. “He wins the man-to-man matchups. Obviously his speed and everything, you just get the dude the ball, he’ll take off. George is extremely explosive — more than people think. He does a great job with the yards after the catch. So that’s where my mindset’s at — whatever play we have drawn up I’m going to go through my progression, but I know if I get the ball to George it can be an explosive (play).”

The connection between Purdy and Kittle is a case of opposites attracting, at least when considering the two went to rival schools (Iowa State for Purdy, Iowa for Kittle). The two of them joked about that rivalry Saturday, saying Kittle might have had a third touchdown late in the game had the two of them not gone to rival universities.

“I will say if he didn’t go to Iowa State he would have led me on the last play and it would have been a touchdown, but I’ll let that one slide because it’s Christmas,” Kittle said. “But bless his heart, he’s playing at such a high level.”

Purdy said, “I wish I would have had him catch that third touchdown. I threw it a little short but can’t get a Hawkeye too many touchdowns in a game.”

But Kittle and Purdy are clearly on the same page at the moment, which is great news for the 49ers as they head towards the postseason. Kittle has been a positive presence for Purdy and the other players off the field, and in recent weeks he’s been reminding everyone about what he’s capable of when he gets his chances on it.

“Kittle’s energy and what he brings to the team every single day, what he just tells the team and stuff in terms of keeping everything loose — I feel like when (there are) times we sort of feel uptight and what not, Kittle’s like the guy to put a smile on your face and say, ‘Hey, we’re good enough,'” Purdy said. “So we’re very fortunate to have him in our locker room. He does bring energy and good vibes to everyone. Honestly I do feel like he gets us back into a zone of playing well. That’s what he does, and I think he’s the best in the NFL with his personality and everything like that too, so we love George.”

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