There’s no downside for the 2-7 San Francisco 49ers sticking with third-stringer Nick Mullens as their starting quarterback for at least one more game.
That’s one of the few benefits of being out of the playoff hunt so early. Second-year coach Kyle Shanahan can use the remainder of the campaign as a preseason for 2019, where he can foster competition on his young roster and challenge players in ways they wouldn’t be during a playoff chase.
That includes under center, since Jimmy Garoppolo is out for the year with a left knee injury.
Unlike C.J. Beathard, who has 13 starts under his belt, there’s plenty to learn about Mullens after his stirring debut in Thursday night’s blowout of the Oakland Raiders. Mullens passed for 262 yards and three touchdowns for a 151.9 passer rating, the third-highest in a game in club history.
“I thought he was very efficient, made some big plays,” Shanahan said after mulling over game film. “... Did a good job getting rid of the ball, changing his arm angle a number of times and got us in and out of the huddle very efficiently.”
Shanahan has time to figure out if Mullens can adjust his game after defenses adjust to him. The New York Giants, the 49ers’ next opponent Monday night, had a bye last week. Giants defensive coordinator James Bettcher should have a far better plan than what the Raiders tried in their miserable effort (assuming Mullens is named the starter).
Mullens wasn’t challenged much. His receivers were often wide open, including on touchdown passes to receiver Pierre Garçon and tight end George Kittle. Mullens was pressured on just three of his 22 drop-backs, according to Pro Football Focus.
In other words, Mullens proved he can execute in perfect conditions - like a golfer playing with soft greens and no wind on an easy course. But how will Mullens react when the tees get pushed back, gusts increase and the greens play fast?
It’s worth finding out how Mullens plays against better opponents, because there’s no reason to hand Beathard the backup role again next season if Mullens proves more capable of winning. Shanahan can’t know after one start against the Raiders.
The Giants will assuredly try to clog the middle of the field and prevent Mullens from finding his targets on in-breaking routes so easily, where throws are the shortest. Mullens against Oakland completed 10 of 11 passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, per PFF, and just 3 of 8 throws of 11 yards or more, including 0 for 4 on such throws outside the numbers.
The 2017 undrafted free agent didn’t show the arm strength to push the ball downfield along the sideline against the Raiders, which could allow the Giants to be aggressive and physical with San Francisco’s receivers and force Mullens to make longer throws toward the outside.
The Giants (1-7) don’t have a particularly imposing defense either. It ranks 22nd in scoring (25.6 points per game), 21st in total yardage allowed (366.4) and 16th against the pass (244). Perhaps most importantly, New York is sacking quarterbacks on just 3.52 percent of their drop-backs, the third-worst rate in the NFL.
But the Giants have a better offense than the Raiders. They’ve averaged 392 total yards over the last four games (Oakland had 242) and will test the 49ers with elite receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and rookie running back Saquon Barkley.
It’s unlikely San Francisco’s 24th-ranked scoring defense will hold the Giants to three points, as they did the Raiders. Mullens had the benefit of playing with a lead after orchestrating a touchdown drive on the 49ers’ first possession. The 49ers led 17-3 at halftime, after which the Raiders had one possession that ended in San Francisco territory.
“It’s always easier when you play, I think, at a high level on all three phases,” Shanahan said. “The defense plays that well, it makes it a lot easier on the offense and especially the quarterback. When the offense plays well, it makes it a lot easier on the defense. So, it goes hand in hand.”
Beathard is expected to be healthy for the game. He was Mullens’ backup against the Raiders, even though he struggled to make accurate throws in warmups while dealing with his right wrist injury.
Sitting out a few games might give Beathard a chance to reset and re-calibrate. He struggled in his last two contests against the Rams and Arizona, completing just 53 percent of his passes with two touchdowns and two interceptions, a passer rating of 70.3.
If Mullens struggles to replicate his success against the Giants, then Shanahan can make an informed decision by going back to Beathard. San Francisco has its bye after playing the Giants.
For now, Mullens has earned at least one more start. Why not?