George Kittle falls just short of record and Kyle Shanahan takes blame

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- On a day when San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle etched his name in the franchise record book and nearly set an NFL record for receiving yards in a game, coach Kyle Shanahan apologized. Twice.

After a dominant first half in which Kittle caught seven passes for 210 yards, he had one target and zero catches in the second half. That left him 5 yards short of breaking Shannon Sharpe's single-game record of 214 receiving yards by a tight end.

"I definitely apologized to him," Shanahan said. "We were debating on how we could do it there at the end. I didn't think it would have been a problem, but I wish that he did get it. Because, to have that all in the first half and only be 5 yards away, he had an unbelievable day. It sucked that he didn't get it."

What didn't suck from a 49ers perspective is that Kittle's first-half explosion was enough to jump-start the team to its third win of the season, a 20-14 victory against the Denver Broncos.

While the Niners seemed to go out of their way to turn a 20-point lead into a narrow victory, Kittle's big day was able to stand the test of the final 30 minutes.

In the process, Kittle cemented himself as the best reason to watch the 49ers moving forward. On a team with question marks at many positions, tight end isn't one of them. Kittle is must-see TV on a team that's far from it.

With three games to go in his breakout season, Kittle offered a signature performance against the Broncos, setting some franchise records along the way and falling just short of the aforementioned league record in the process.

Kittle's first-half outburst included an 85-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown in which he reached a max speed of 20.39 mph, the fastest max speed on a reception in his career and the third-fastest by a tight end this season, according to NFL's Next Gen Stats.

After the game, Niners quarterback Nick Mullens and cornerback Richard Sherman both made it a point to mention Kittle's underrated speed and athleticism.

"George Kittle is a dynamic player," Sherman said. "I don't think he gets enough credit for how athletic he is. And it's very similar to [Travis] Kelce out in Kansas City with how slippery he is, his lateral movement is deceptive and he has a ton of speed. I don't know, maybe they were just running the ball a lot more in college and just didn't give him the opportunity, but he's really way more athletic than people really understand."

For his part, Kittle credits his mother's side of the family for his speed and athleticism, noting his grandfather was once drafted by the Chicago Cardinals, his mom is a high school hall of famer in two sports and he has cousins who have played football, baseball and basketball at the college level or above.

"Just good genes on that side," Kittle said, laughing. "My dad will be upset but he understands."

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Kittle is the sixth player to post 200 or more receiving yards in a half since 1991, joining Odell Beckham Jr., Irving Fryar, Qadry Ismail, Kevin Curtis and Lee Evans.

While Kittle came up short of Sharpe's record, he did carve his place in Niners history. In the first quarter, Kittle passed Vernon Davis' 965 receiving yards, giving him the single-season record for most receiving yards by a tight end in franchise history.

His touchdown catch also pushed him past 1,000 receiving yards this season, making him the first Niners tight end to reach that mark and the first pass-catcher at any position to hit that number since Anquan Boldin in 2014.

"It's an honor," Kittle said. "The fact that Vernon Davis was one heck of a tight end who played here for 11 years and he set the standard. His name is on the wall outside of our tight end room. I see it every single day so the fact that I can see that and shoot for his records, it's definitely fun and it's awesome to be able to get those opportunities."

The second-year tight end out of Iowa now has three catches this season of 70 or more yards, the most in the NFL. He is the only player with multiple 80-yard receptions this season. No other tight end has one such catch.

Even when the Broncos managed to cover Kittle, he found a way to make a difference. Three Broncos were flagged for defensive holding while trying to defend Kittle.

The performance earned Kittle a visit with Deion Sanders on NFL Network after the game, an occasion for which Kittle borrowed linebacker Elijah Lee's Atlanta Falcons No. 21 jersey.

Kittle now has 69 catches for 1,103 yards and four touchdowns this season with three games to go.

Despite all of that, Kittle came up just short of Sharpe's tight end record of 214 yards set against Kansas City on Oct. 20, 2002. After playing man coverage for most of the first half, the Broncos switched to more zone in the second half, and with the Niners struggling to get first downs and stay on the field, Kittle couldn't get the play he needed to get over the top.

Kittle wasn't fazed by the near miss.

"The fact that we got out with a win is all I care about at all," Kittle said. "Coach Shanahan has already apologized twice to me for not getting me the ball so I'll just put that on him, that's OK. I think he can take it."

In a season in which bright spots have been few and far between for the Niners, Kittle has shined the most and staked his claim as the Niners' best player, a Pro Bowler and one of the league's top tight ends. For that, no apology is necessary.