It goes without saying that the San Francisco 49ers are a much better team when tight end George Kittle is on the field.
Since joining the 49ers back in 2017, the 2019 All-Pro tight end has all but established himself as the best at his position in the NFL in just a few seasons.
However, San Francisco had to navigate a Week 2 win over the New York Jets without their No. 1 offensive threat after Kittle suffered a knee injury in Week 1.
While the team was successful in their first week in New Jersey, they lost quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and running backs Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman to injuries in the process.
With Nick Mullens starting at QB for the 49ers against the New York Giants, the team was initially hopeful that Kittle would be ready for Week 3, with San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan on local station KNBR to discuss the state of Kittle’s injury with just over 48 hours from kickoff.
“Today will be a big day. It’s gotten better each day. We haven’t gotten out there yet for our Friday practice, so we’ll go out there today, test him a little bit more, and I’ll talk to him after, talk to the doctors after. Then we’ll make a decision.
“But I can promise you, if there’s any hesitation at all in George, which there rarely is, but if there is at all, and if there’s any hesitation by the doctor at all, he won’t be out there.”
But just hours later, the team and Shanahan officially announced that Kittle was ruled out for Week 3, with the coach breaking the news via video conference with local media.
OUT: RB Tevin Coleman (knee), DE Dee Ford (back), QB Garoppolo (ankle), LB Dre Greenlaw (quadricep), TE George Kittle (knee), RB Raheem Mostert (knee)
Questionable: CB Ahkello Witherspoon (hamstring)
CB Jason Verrett (hamstring) practiced in full throughout the week.
— Matt Barrows (@mattbarrows) September 25, 2020
It’s obviously a major loss, but the concerns over Kittle aren’t what his absence will mean again the Giants, but where the 49ers go from here.
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The primary concern is all based in the results. The 49ers look at the Giants game as one that they should win, but that becomes much more difficult when you are lacking key players.
Kittle isn’t quite a guy that you can generate 30 touches around like a versatile running back, but getting the ball to him early and often would go a long ways in terms of generating offensive consistency and confidence for Mullens when the tight end eventually returns to the field.
The other concern is exactly how severe Kittle’s injury is. It was expected that the tight end would miss Week 2 against the New York Jets, but the hope has been that Kittle would be ready by Week 3.
While Shanahan and the 49ers aren’t in a rush to get Kittle back, which is the smart move, the longer his return is delayed, the more questions raised in regards to his knee.
The severity of the injury is a two-sided coin: concern over how long it takes to recover, but encouragement from seeing the 49ers take their time and show patience and composure in what has been a dire injury crisis.
It helps when the team is able to run out Jordan Reed as the replacing starter, who made his name properly known to 49ers fans last week with two touchdowns in the first half.
San Francisco is in the rare position of having a starter-quality tight end ready to slide in while Kittle’s out, and it will be exciting to see how Shanahan continues to use Reed going forward.
Evan Reier is a sportswriter covering the San Francisco 49ers for Heavy.com and local sports for the Montana Standard in Butte, Mont. Reach out to him on Twitter at @evanreier and join our 49ers community at Heavy on 49ers on Facebook.