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Kurtenbach: The 49ers lead the NFL in dudes. That makes them the team to beat

Kurtenbach: The 49ers lead the NFL in dudes. That makes them the team to beat

SANTA CLARA — In football, there is no higher compliment than “dude.”

On the field, a dude combines skill and physicality, toughness and speed.

They’re not just big. That’d be a hoss. They’re not just athletes, either.

No, these guys are the whole package. I’m talking about the kind that will run right through an opponent and leave his teammates in the dust.

I’m talking about the kind of player that will force you up and out of your seat.

The kind of player that makes you, a fan, grunt in glee at the TV.

Dudes are the reason we love this ridiculous, dangerous, beautiful game.

And the Niners lead the NFL in dudes.

That might not be a stat you can find in a spreadsheet — and don’t go looking for the position in fantasy football — but it’s wildly evident on the field. It’s showing up in the standings, too.

There’s a downright preponderance of dudes in Santa Clara, folks, and for my money, that makes the Niners the league’s team to beat.

Three of those red and gold dudes put on a show Thursday. Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, and Christian McCaffrey — now that’s a skill-position trifecta of speed and power that cannot be matched.

And that’s just what the Niners had on the field for the prime-time game with the Giants. Wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk — a dude himself — was sidelined with a shoulder injury.

The other dudes went to work in the 49ers’ 30-12 win over New York.

Samuel, Kittle, and McCaffrey were all brilliant in a game where Niners quarterback Brock Purdy wasn’t his best — inundated by a blitz on more than three-quarters of his drop-backs and inaccurate to start the contest.

But Purdy, despite the not-so-great game, still ended the contest with 310 yards passing.

Why?

You already know the answer: Dudes.

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Now, Samuel’s dude bonafides are tried and true. We saw the receiver-slash-running back put the 2021 Niners on his back in the second half of the season, carrying them all the way to the NFC Championship Game.

The Niners didn’t need Samuel to do that last season, but on Thursday, with Aiyuk sidelined with a shoulder injury and the New York Giants blitzing on more than three-quarters of their snaps, San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan put the Niners’ fate back in Samuel’s hands.

They needed a 2021-like performance.

Samuel delivered.

“His number one goal in life, he says, is to get Deebo the ball in open space,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk said of Shanahan.

Coach can sleep easy — he achieved his goal on Thursday.

While Samuel wasn’t lined up in the backfield often, he was the focal point of the passing game against New York, and of his 129 receiving yards, 81 came after the catch, with the vast majority of those yards coming after contact.

He ran under, past, and through a Giants team that showed less and less interest in tackling him as the game progressed. Body blow after body blow, Samuel delivered the kind of message few players in the NFL can.

Kittle can deliver those kinds of messages. And Thursday, he delivered a few, alongside another: I haven’t gone anywhere.

With all these dudes around, Kittle had taken a back seat in the offense to start the season, catching only six passes for 49 yards, total, in the first two games.

But with Aiyuk out and Giants in his face, Purdy had to look Kittle’s way Thursday.

The plays that produced big gains for the Niners’ tight end are the same ones we’ve seen for years. They still work because Kittle can still drag defensive backs down the field with a smile on his face.

You can ask Giants safety Xavier McKinney about that.

In the third quarter Thursday, Kittle caught a second-down pass three yards past the line of scrimmage. McKinney was all over him, making first contact with the Niners’ tight end before he ran two yards upfield.

But despite McKinney trying to tackle him, Kittle just kept running. I think he even gained speed.

It took three Giants to finally bring Kittle down, 25 yards down the field from where McKinney first tried to tackle him.

Yeah, Kittle still has it.

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Running back Christian McCaffrey is another type of dude. He’s as nails, yes, but he’s more slippery than Samuel and Kittle.

Still, the majority of CMC’s yards this season have come after contact. In the first half Thursday, when the 49ers offense was, effectively, just McCaffrey, as the passing game was out-of-sync, the Niners’ running back ran for 48 of his 61 total yards after a Giants defender first touched him.

McCaffrey finished with 119 yards of offense Thursday, scoring another touchdown in the process.

Another winning performance.

The 49ers lost McCaffrey’s first game with the team last season. Outside of the NFC Championship Game, where the 49ers ran out of healthy quarterbacks, San Francisco hasn’t lost a game since McCaffrey’s debut. We’re at 13 regular season wins in a row now.

Clearly, this guy is a special type of dude.

The Niners have some dudes on defense, too. Nick Bosa, Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw — the list goes on. (It’s easier to be a dude when your job is predicated on hitting people.)

But those guys see what Samuel, Kittle, and McCaffrey are doing, and their dude energy begets more dude energy from the defense.

“Deebo, Christian, and George, just the amount of physical runs they have definitely gets us going,” Bosa said after the game.

And the Niners might be creating more dudes, too.

“There’s a lot of dudes out there, man,” Juszczyk said. “You can walk into either huddle, and it feels like you’re on a Pro Bowl roster… We even got some young guys who are stepping up. I loved the way Ronnie Bell played today.

Could be another potential dude.”

The Niners are, without question, the best team in the NFL right now.

I don’t see why that should change in the coming weeks.

In an era of football where contact is avoided, the Niners have offensive weapons that seek to deliver punishment. They have dudes.

And dudes win games in this league.