The 49ers are getting historic play from their quarterback for the second straight December, though Nick Mullens’ fast start to his NFL career is hardly getting the same level of fanfare as Jimmy Garoppolo did to end 2017.
Perhaps it’s because Mullens isn’t considered a possible face of the franchise that can change the tenor surrounding the entire organization. The former undrafted rookie, after all, is just place holding until Garoppolo returns from his torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
Garoppolo is expected to return at some point during the offseason, with June OTAs as a realistic goal. That would push Mullens back down the depth chart where he’ll compete with C.J. Beathard to be the primary backup.
But Mullens deserves some attention with just three games left on the schedule. He’s played well enough to start all three, barring something unforeseen happening.
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Consider: Mullens threw for 746 yards the past two games, becoming San Francisco’s only undrafted quarterback to have back-to-back 300-yard games since Jeff Garcia did it three straight times in Dec. 2000. Garoppolo, a second-round pick of the Patriots, also did it last season during his splashy debut as the 49ers starter.
Mullens’ back-to-back total is the most by a 49ers quarterback since Steve Young had 761 yards during Weeks 9 and 10 in 1995.
“He’s been on fire,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said Wednesday, ahead of Seattle’s trip to play San Francisco on Sunday.
Mullens is averaging 295.8 yards in his five starts, which would tie him for fifth in the NFL if he had enough playing time to qualify among the league leaders. That’s more than Andrew Luck (289.2), Aaron Rodgers (284.6) and Tom Brady (284.6).
“Nick has shown that he can play quarterback in this league,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said.
So how has an undrafted player from little-known Southern Mississippi, who spent the bulk of his first two NFL seasons on San Francisco’s practice squad, been so effective?
A lot of it can be credited to Shanahan, who’s been able to get Mullens good looks on the vast majority of his successful plays.
Mullens has made “aggressive” throws on just 8 percent of his pass attempts, according to the NFL’s Next Gen statistics, measuring throws where defenders are within a yard of the intended target. That ranks dead last among 35 quarterbacks with at least 113 pass attempts this season.
In other words, Mullens is throwing to open receivers more than any other quarterback.
That includes his biggest plays made over the last two games: the 75-yard touchdown to Dante Pettis against the Seahawks on Dec. 2 and last week’s 85-yard touchdown to George Kittle, where no defender was within 15 yards of the tight end as he ran a crossing route after play action.
All four of Pettis’ touchdowns over the last three games qualify as non-aggressive throws, including scores against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Denver Broncos, which are nods to Pettis’ ability to separate from coverage and Shanahan’s knack for getting him open.
“I credit that to coach Shanahan,” Kittle said. “I think he’s just really, really smart. I think he knows how to read defenses and things that they’re not good at.”
Said Carroll: “I think he adapts really well to the talents of the QB. He does a really nice job calling plays and spreading the offense around so that it enhances what the quarterback does well. He’s been able to do it with all different kinds of quarterbacks, and always shown consistency and production by those guys regardless of who they are. I think that’s his ability to adapt and his savvy to understand what guys’ strengths are. And I think he plays to their strengths really quite well.”
The success of the passing game starts with having success on the ground. Roughly 25 percent of Mullens’ throws have come on play action — including the long touchdowns to Pettis and Kittle — which has helped get favorable looks thanks to the 49ers’ eighth-ranked rushing offense averaging 125.7 yards per game.
“Kyle does a great job of marrying the run plays with the pass plays,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “On George’s 85-yard touchdown, we had ran the run play to set that up three times before that. He ran it twice and I ran it once. Exact same action, exact same everything. Just when the pass play comes, George slips that linebacker that he’s blocking in the run play and runs this high cross and no one was covering him.”
Added Kittle: “I didn’t have to do anything. No one was within 15 yards of me.”
But two starts is a small sample size and San Francisco is just 2-3 with Mullens under center. The Seahawks arrive Sunday having allowed just 276 total yards of offense against quarterback Kirk Cousins and the Vikings during a 21-7 victory on Monday night. Minnesota didn’t score until 1:10 remained in the game.
Additionally, 300 of Mullens’ 414 yards Dec. 2 in Seattle came after halftime, when the 49ers hit the break down 20-3 before getting blown out 43-16. Much of Mullens’ production came well after the Seahawks already had the game in hand.
“I guess sure, yeah (the yardage totals are) cool,” Mullens said. “But, at the same time, I understand that stats don’t matter, points do.”