© Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports
SANTA CLARA — By the way he ended his 2018 season, you’d be surprised to know George Kittle played the final seven-plus games with fractured rib cartilage.
His teammates are, too.
In Week 9, Kittle suffered the injury, located right outside of his sternum, on the third play of San Francisco’s 34-3 win over the Oakland Raiders. He played through it for the remainder of the year without saying much of anything. The only way his teammates would have known about the injury is by noticing the two “giant” rib protectors he wore.
Joe Staley first heard about Kittle’s injury when a reporter filled him in on the deal Wednesday, as the team gathers for offseason workouts, which unofficially mark the start of the new season.
“George isn’t the type of guy to announce that he has something,” Staley said. “He’s a tough guy, so I don’t think he’s going to be out there telling everyone about tough he is.”
This means most of Kittle’s memorable plays and feats in 2018 were accomplished with the injury.
That includes his incredible one-handed snag, which he turned into a 71-yard gain, against the Raiders. Kittle admitted he thought the safety was going to “smoke” him over the middle.
— NFL (@NFL) November 2, 2018
Kittle said he suffered two hard hits in each of the following two games following the Oakland matchup, against New York and at Tampa Bay. He combined for 15 catches on 23 targets for 131 yards in those contests. Kittle said his ribs were “decently healed enough so it didn’t hurt that bad” in the remaining games.
If he was more comfortable, it showed. Kittle averaged 6.4 catches and 110.8 yards in the final five games of the season. He set some records along the way, too. In Week 14, he amassed 210 yards, the second-most ever for a tight end in single game. He did it all in the first half. Fast forward to Week 17, and he broke the single-season tight end yardage mark, previously held by Rob Gronkowski and momentarily Travis Kelce, on a dramatic 43-yard touchdown. His 1,377 single-season receiving yards is the bar for all other tight ends to aim.
Of all the impressive facets of Kittle’s first two years in the league, playing through injury is an underrated one. As a rookie, he separated his shoulder and dealt with a slew of additional nagging injuries, yet he missed only one game. Last year, he played in all 16 games and was on the field for nearly 88 percent of the team’s snaps, despite the rib cartilage fracture.
Kittle returns for his third season with a newfound reputation as one of the best tight ends in the league. Kyle Shanahan has continued to push Kittle, particularly emphasizing route-running. The second-team All-Pro tight end said Wednesday that he has added an extra lift day to his weekly exercise regimen.
Staying healthy continues to be one of Kittle’s focuses, even though injuries don’t seem to bother him.
“It was fun, I guess,” Kittle said about the rib injury. “I don’t know, it’s just something you play with.”