MIAMI — He heard it, if not all the time, certainly a good deal of the time.
While at Iowa, George Kittle listened as his offensive line coach, Brian Ferentz, regaled him with stories about Rob Gronkowski. Ferentz was the tight ends coach with the Patriots early in Gronkowski’s career and had an endless array of tales about the man-child they call Gronk.
Kittle listened. What else could he do? The anecdotes were probably as close as Kittle would get to a player he called “definitely an idol of mine.’’ Kittle caught 48 passes in 22 games at Iowa and was taken by the 49ers in the fifth round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
Kittle and Gronk? Well, they play the same position, so there’s that.
Gronkowski is retired and the Patriots are not around this year for the Super Bowl, which is comforting for all those outside of the New England environs and all those who don’t worship at the feet of Tom Brady. There is a player about to participate in Super Bowl 2020, though, who has a Gronk-like quality to him. Yup, the guy who kept hearing about Gronkowski from his assistant coach in college.
“I just try my best to play really good football, if people want to make comparisons they can,’’ Kittle said Tuesday at the 49ers team hotel. “I think Gronk is one of, if not the best tight ends to ever play the game. Just his relentless mindset and the fun he has playing. He’s a guy I grew up watching, he’s one of my favorite players growing up so to hear those comparisons, I love ’em.’’
So, who exactly is making these comparisons?
Try Rob Gronkowski.
“He reminds me of myself,’’ Gronkowski said recently.
Imagine hearing someone you fiercely want to emulate say this?
“To be able to get a compliment like that from an idol of mine, it’s pretty amazing, kind of surreal,’’ Kittle said. “One of those things, I kind of pinch myself a lot.’’
Kittle at 6-foot-4 and 249 pounds is not nearly the physical behemoth Gronkowski (6-6, 265) was, but the similarities are more stylistic than physical. Kittle shuns the sideline as if it was quicksand. He views running out of bounds as a crime. Once he makes a catch, he turns and has only one thought: Where is the end zone and how do I get there?
If a couple of defenders are in his path, so be it. One defender is seen as unfortunate and not an impediment. When Kittle gets to stiff-arming and plowing onward, it energizes a 49ers team that enjoys playing bully-ball and will try to run through the Chiefs on Sunday.
“It makes you play with more swagger too,’’ quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said. “The receivers, the O-line, everybody. It’s just that trickle-down effect of his mentality and our whole offense’s mentality of don’t run out of bounds, get that extra yard, make another guy tackle you and he’s the epitome of that. It starts with him.’’
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This stage is not Kittle’s alone, as this could be the best tight end matchup in Super Bowl history, with the Chiefs featuring the emotional and productive Travis Kelce as a centerpiece of their attack.
Kittle set an NFL record last season with 1,377 receiving yards, the most ever for a tight end. He caught 85 passes for 1,053 yards and five touchdowns this season, excellent but not overwhelming numbers. Anyone vaguely familiar with the 49ers knows why. They are primarily a running team and Kittle’s opportunities are reduced and, thus far this postseason, actually scarce.
This is more than fine with him. Kittle might be the best blocking tight end in the league. He gains praise for his technique, which is as refined as many offensive linemen.
“I think it’s a huge help,’’ fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “A lot of offenses, that tight end is really a wide receiver. When you get an extra blocker in there, especially one like George who is so physical and dominating, it gives you an extra body.’’
The rare combination has Kittle hearing many consider him the NFL’s best all-around tight end.
“I critique guys based on their film, their quiet film, not what they say and all that stuff,’’ Kittle said. “I’m the same with myself. I want guys to watch my film and go ‘That’s how I need to play.’ If my peers respect that, that’s enough for me.’’
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