SANTA CLARA — Brett Favre used to periodically visit his alma mater, Southern Mississippi, and chat with the quarterbacks. He even came back several times to talk with the man who broke his passing records — Nick Mullens.
In 2017, Favre, who lives just 20 minutes away from Southern Miss campus, in Sumrall, came back again, this time to spend several days with Mullens.
“He’s a pretty cool guy. He has great stories, first of all. He has great stories,” Mullns said on Tuesday. “At the same time you can take stuff from him, but the ways he plays the game, he’s so good naturally that you just watch and say, ‘Man, it’d be sweet to be that good.'”
Favre started eight games for the Atlanta Falcons as a rookie in 1991. Mullens, who went undrafted in 2017 and signed with the San Francisco 49ers, has yet to play an NFL snap. With C.J. Beathard looking doubtful for Thursday night’s losingest matchup in NFL primetime history between 1-7 San Francisco and the 1-6 Oakland Raiders, Mullens may not only see his first real NFL action outside the preseason, but he may very well get his first NFL start.
“[He’s] as ready as you can be,” said head coach Kyle Shanahan. “Nick works his tail off whether he was on practice squad all last year, some of this year, since he’s been the two. Nick’s a very smart guy who works at it nonstop. He’ll be able to go in there and execute the offense and knows what he’s doing.”
If he plays, Mullens will be the third quarterback to start a game for San Francisco this season. After last season’s big trade deadline acquisition Jimmy Garoppolo — who signed a $137 million deal this offseason — down with an ACL, backup C.J. Beathard hurt his right wrist on Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals.
In the second quarter of Sunday’s come-from-ahead loss Beathard cracked his right arm on the helmet of an oncoming defender. Adrenaline kept him going, but he went 14-of-28 with four sacks, and by Tuesday, he had trouble gripping a football. An MRI and X-ray showed no breaks, but Beathard didn’t practice on Tuesday.
Even if Beathard is able to make a go of things on Wednesday, it won’t be at full speed, since the 49ers will not have time for a full-speed padded practice before Thursday. The same goes for Mullens. So, even though the team had the day off on Monday, he immersed himself in game film of Oakland’s defense.
“There’s never an off day,” Mullens said. “Had to go to work.They’re a good defense. They’ve got some veterans on the back end, and they’re a good defense. Try to attack and play it out.”
The Raiders, in the midst of a roster purge under new head coach Jon Gruden, tried to trade defensive end Bruce Irvin and safety Karl Joseph before the NFL’s trade deadline on Tuesday. Oakland is currently 26th in the league in total defense, 22nd in passing defense and 31st in scoring defense, having traded Khalil Mack before the season and having a revolving door in the secondary. Just this week, cornerback Dominique Rogers-Cromarte retired, leaving over $360,000 on the table to escape the sinking ship that’s been Gruden’s first year as head coach.
The fact that Mullens, not former Houston Texans starter Tom Savage, is next in line to take snaps demonstrates the complexity of Shanahan’s playbook. Savage has been with the team two weeks, while Mullens is in his second season. At this point last year, Mullens said, he wasn’t ready to take game snaps. It took Garoppolo nearly five weeks from when he was acquired until he was ready to start, and when he did, the 49ers went 5-0.
The entire playbook will be open for Mullens. Should Savage be activated, and should he be needed, the playbook would be trimmed.
Standing pat at the deadline, San Francisco will ride with Mullens, and will almost certainly elevate Savage to the active roster, after waiving wide receiver Victor Bolden and defensive back Greg Maybin. Waiving of two also likely means that Richard Sherman — who was limited in practice with calf and heel issues — could play, or San Francisco could activate Marcell Harris and/or Dekoda Watson.
With Bolden waived, it’s expected that Dante Pettis will also be healthy for the second straight week, giving Mullens both of his two biggest downfield threats, along with Marquise Goodwin. In the first six games, San Francisco averaged 239.0 passing yards per game. Over the last two, the 49ers have averaged 140.5. Garoppolo went down in Week 3. Pettis had three catches for 96 yards over the first two games, before a knee injury slowed him. Goodwin has been in and out with quad and hamstring issues, and has just 12 catches for 259 yards in six games.
“We definitely know that we have capability, no matter who’s out on the field,” Mullens said. “We have capability, and we know that we can be a great team, so it’s just a matter of finishing. That’s what Shanahan preached today: Finish. Whatever’s going to take that next step, we’ve got to make that happen.”
During the preseason, Mullens went 31-of-43 for 396 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. The biggest challenge for Mullens will be going from a year on the practice squad to playing live snaps against an NFL defense, having to make calls and think on the fly. Running back Matt Breida, who was on the practice squad with Mullens last year, had high praise for what he thinks Mullens can do.
“I’ve been here with Nick since day one, both of us undrafted,” Breida said. “He’s one of the hardest workers I know, both on the field and off the field. He’s going to make sure he’s prepared.”
After Mullens broke Favre’s records for passing yards (11,994) and touchdowns (87), and won Conference USA Player of the Year as a junior, he set himself towards playing in the Senior Bowl. When asked about his preparation before the draft, he told 49ers quarterbacks coach Rick Scangarello that he’d studied film of drop-back passers to prepare, since he’d played in a spread, shotgun system for the Golden Eagles.
“He had to look up on YouTube how to do drops and stuff under center because he was always in (shotgun) throughout college,” Shanahan said. “That’s the kind of guy he is. He’s going to figure it out. He’s going to work all day to figure it out on his own, with the help of coaches and stuff, he takes that as well as anyone.”