The 49ers enter Week 3 of the season facing a precarious set of circumstances with injuries, their record, Sunday’s venue and their upcoming schedule. Perhaps their biggest question on the injury front is whether All-Pro tight end George Kittle should play against the New York Giants just two weeks removed from a knee sprain. Given the slew of factors at play, it’s hard to justify suiting Kittle up against the Giants unless he’s 100 percent healthy.
First, he suffered a sprained knee only two weeks ago. Head coach Kyle Shanahan indicated Kittle would miss the second week, but join the team in West Virginia to begin practicing again after staying in the Bay Area to receive treatment. Pushing a player, even one as tough as Kittle, back onto the field that quickly always comes with at least a minor risk. It’s worth noting the team kept him limited the first two days of practice leading up to Week 3.
The second factor is one that seemingly exacerbates that inherent risk.
MetLife Stadium’s turf became the key story line after the 49ers’ 31-13 drubbing of the Jets in Week 2. San Francisco lost Nick Bosa and Solomon Thomas to torn ACLs, and Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman both left the game with knee sprains. Multiple 49ers complained about the playing surface after the game, and Shanahan said in his postgame press conference that the field was an issue for some players as early as warmups. He also said immediately after the game and the following Monday that MetLife Stadium’s playing surface would be factored into their decision on Kittle’s availability.
If the 49ers believe the turf increases injury risk for healthy players, they can’t possibly justify putting Kittle on the field if he’s still feeling the effects of his sprained knee.
There’s a risk-reward element at play too for San Francisco. If this was Week 17 and they needed a win to clinch a playoff spot, the urgency of that scenario probably means Kittle plays. No such urgency exists for the 49ers in reality.
They enter the week 1-1 in a division where all three teams ahead of them are 2-0. Those aren’t dire straits, but they can’t afford to fall too far behind the pack if they want to contend for a division crown.
While the Giants offer more on the defensive side than they do on offense, they’re an opponent the 49ers should be able to beat without their star tight end. Backup quarterback Nick Mullens may lean heavily on his tight ends, but Jordan Reed showed his Pro Bowl potential last week with a pair of touchdown catches, and Ross Dwelley acquitted himself well in Kittle’s absence last year.
The risk of losing Kittle to a longer-term injury in a game they should be able to win without him doesn’t outweigh the reward of having him healthy down the stretch. After the Giants the 49ers head home to face the Eagles, Dolphins and Rams. That bout with the Rams kicks off a stretch of games where the 49ers also face the Patriots, Seahawks, Packers, Saints, Rams and Bills. It’s impossible to see San Francisco coming out the other side of that in good shape unless they have a healthy Kittle on offense.
The 49ers have consistently prioritized long-term health over short-term gains over the last two years. That shouldn’t change in this instance with Kittle, especially with factors like the turf and their upcoming schedule at play. San Francisco already had a daunting task ahead of them in trying to become just the fourth team to win the Super Bowl a year after losing it. Injuries have already made it even more difficult. Risking another key injury to a player like Kittle all but derails the postseason hopes they do have, and that’s not worth one Week 3 game vs. the 0-2 Giants.