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49ers' George Kittle points to himself: 'I have to be a better captain'

Sacramento Bee logoSacramento Bee 10/16/2020 By Chris Biderman, The Sacramento Bee

George Kittle has been a 49ers team captain since 2018, his second year in the league.

But there are far more challenges for the All-Pro tight end as a captain in 2020.

For starters, he doesn’t have veterans like Joe Staley or DeForest Buckner to lean on every day in the locker room. Even star cornerback Richard Sherman’s presence has been minimized by a calf injury that’s kept him from playing since the season opener.

Which has led to Kittle, fresh off a five-year, $75 million contract extension he signed over the summer, to use his voice to become more a more pointed and vocal leader, particularly as his team navigates its disappointing 2-3 start.

It started after last week’s game against the previously 1-3 Miami Dolphins, a 43-17 defeat which a handful of players deemed, “embarrassing,” as the defending NFC champions fell to 0-3 at Levi’s Stadium.

“We have four captains on offense,” Kittle said afterwards, “and we got to play together, we got to play better, we got to pick each other better and we’re just not doing that.”

That’s not a criticism Kittle would have offered earlier in his career, even while the 49ers were at the bottom of the barrel in his first two seasons in 2017 and 2018. The ever-positive star would have more likely used platitudes about executing better and figuring out what the team did wrong after watching the game film.

But Kittle is at a different career point as one of the team’s respected veterans. He’s more of a team leader than he’s ever been. He’s attempting to put more on his shoulders to right the ship in time for Sunday night’s pivotal game against the Los Angeles Rams.

“When you lose two guys who you look up to, it is hard,” Kittle said Thursday, mentioning Staley and Sherman. “I have to be a better captain, I’m still learning how to do that. And I think I’m getting better at that every single day.”

Still getting help from Staley

Part of improving at being a captain still involves leaning on Staley, who’s enjoying retirement at his home in the San Diego area. Staley, of course, was a long-time captain and a member of the all-decade team before announcing his retirement in the spring after a successful 13-year career.

“I’m trying to ask him questions about things that are going on. He’s been incredibly helpful,” Kittle said.

He continued: “One of the things that I learned from Staley was my rookie year, I was terrified of Joe Staley. I think I’ve said that a couple times. He would come in and he would be kind of a p---k sometimes and I wouldn’t really understand that. And then there are times you’d see him and he’d be the happiest guy ever. You’re like, ‘what’s wrong with him?’

“Really, when you think about it, it’s the way he holds guys accountable, no matter who you are, it doesn’t matter if you’re the QB, it doesn’t matter if you’re DeForest Buckner, it doesn’t matter if you’re Arik Armstead, it doesn’t matter if you’re George Kittle. Joe would hold you accountable and he’d make sure you heard his point and what he thought was required of you on a daily basis.”

Accountability has been important for the 49ers as they try to maintain their good vibes that were paramount in rebounding from 4-12 in 2018 to 13-3 and last season’s Super Bowl. The offensive line hasn’t been clearing lanes in the running game at the same rate, and the team has allowed five sacks in each of the last two games.

The execution, particularly on offense, has been lacking while the defense has been decimated by injuries to star pass rusher Nick Bosa, Sherman, Dee Ford, Solomon Thomas and others. And San Francisco through five games has started five different combinations of cornerbacks.

Instead of using the injuries as an excuse or players on the offense pointing fingers, the key to changing the tenure of the season is accountability, as Staley has taught Kittle.

“That’s one thing Joe told me,” Kittle said, “and I talked to him after last game, and he was just like, ‘Look, you have to hold people accountable and you have to tell them that you have to hold them to the highest standard because that’s what we’ve done for the last three years is hold guys to an incredibly high standard.’ I’m not saying we’re lacking that at all, I’m just saying we’re trying to find out footing as a team.”

Garoppolo, Mostert, Samuel and Aiyuk back in practice

There’s also the continuity factor. The 49ers for the first time since training camp began have gotten full practices this week from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, running back Raheem Mostert and receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk at the same time.

They all have been dealing with injuries at various points leading up this week, including Garoppolo who was benched in Sunday’s game after struggling to play through a high ankle sprain that caused a two-game absence.

Samuel, leading up to his second game back after breaking his foot in June, didn’t practice last week because he was dealing with an illness not related to COVID-19. Aiyuk had a hamstring injury in training camp and Mostert suffered a knee injury Week 2 that led to missing two games.

Said head coach Kyle Shanahan this week when asked about the team’s issues on offense: “Any answer to your questions would be an excuse, so I just try to keep it real, but we’ve got to get out there and practice a lot more. ... So, that does make it a little more inconsistent.”

But now that all the players are back healthy, it sounds like the team should be better offensively on Sunday night, particularly if the offensive line cleans up its mistakes from last week’s game.

“We had guys come in today and I thought we had our best practice of the year today,” Kittle said. “Guys were locked in, our offense was humming. O-line looked good, we had a great run period. So, the thing I love about our team is that we’re hungry and we just want to play better and we know that we’re not playing at our best. We don’t want to be 2-3. And we know that we’re not playing at the level that we want to be playing at.”

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