SANTA CLARA, Calif. — As San Francisco 49ers quarterback Nick Mullens walked up the tunnel and into the locker room on Thursday night, he wept.
After going undrafted in 2017, the 49ers signed Mullens to their practice squad, where he spent all of last season. After starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo went down in Week 3 of this year with a torn ACL, Mullens was promoted to the active roster, but until Thursday, he hadn’t seen so much as a snap. Then, C.J. Beathard injured his throwing hand on Sunday.
In his first NFL start, in his first NFL game, in a primetime matchup against the Oakland Raiders in the final Battle of the Bay, Mullens — the undrafted free-agent signee without a Wikipedia page, who lacked even a verified Twitter account — completed 16-of-22 passes for 262 yards and three touchdowns, didn’t turn the ball over and beat the Las Vegas-bound Raiders in resounding fashion, 34-3.
“I think I’m here for a reason,” Mullens said. “It was my opportunity to prove that I can play.”
As the No. 2 quarterback since Garoppolo’s injury, Mullens would sit in his house and blast Apple Music-sourced crowd noise through his headphones. It certainly helped on Thursday, with a decidedly split crowd for the final match-up between the two Bay Area-based teams before the Raiders head east. He recorded a 151.9 passer rating, first among 13 NFL QBs with at least 15 attempts and 250 yards in their first career game since the merger.
“I tried to tell you guys earlier in the week that he is just a baller,” running back Matt Breida said. “He is at his locker, in his book, every week, and now, it’s finally paying off for him … He is Nick Mullens. That is what he does. He is ready for big moments any time. He is going to be a great quarterback in this league when he gets his shot.”
By throwing for three touchdowns and 200 or more yards with no picks, Mullens became just the fourth quarterback since the merger to do so in his first career game. He tied a franchise record for touchdown passes (3) in a quarterback’s first start with the team, and the first to do it since Tim Rattay (against St. Louis, on Nov. 2, 2003).
He was so good, Twitter verified his account mid-game.
“I hated that he had to do it to us,” said former college teammate Jalen Richard, Oakland’s running back. “I’m proud of that guy. He worked hard. I’ve seen him. I played with him for three years … We were supposed to trade jerseys, but we talked after the game and I told him, ‘Bro, you’ve got to keep that first one!’ First start, first dub. I’m happy for him.”
Mullens’s first NFL touchdown pass came on a slant to a wide-open Pierre Garçon, who had yet to find paydirt in his 16 games as a 49er. He threw his second TD on his very next offensive drive.
His counterpart, big-money starter Derek Carr, had trouble avoiding the 49ers pass rushers — a sentence that has yet to be typed this season about a team that came in with 16 sacks on the year, good for 25th in the NFL. San Francisco had 4.0 sacks before halftime, with Dekoda Watson and Cassius Marsh twice meeting at Carr’s sternum. San Francisco tallied eight sacks on the night, including seven at Carr’s expense.
It was the eighth time in Carr’s career he’s been sacked four or more times. Before his final sack, early in the fourth quarter, Carr slid on second-and-11, curling into a fetal position before he could get hit.
“Everybody on the D-line was eating, linebackers were running and hitting, DBs were covering,” Marsh said. “Offense, honestly, that’s the biggest part. They got up and let the D-line go eat. Let us pin our ears back. Nick Mullens, that’s the story of the night to me. Nick Mullens killed it. He’s the man. He’s been doing it every single time he steps on the field … Is there anything he didn’t do that didn’t impress you? He did everything tonight.”
Oakland — which said goodbye to former defensive player of the year Khalil Mack in a preseason trade — came into Thursday dead last in the NFL in sacks (7.0). Despite the fact that San Francisco had allowed 61 quarterback hits this season — third in the league — Mullens had more than enough time to pick apart the Raiders secondary.
That said, Mullens never did feel like he settled in.
“I was on edge until the clock hit zero, to be honest,” Mullens said. “I was just ready to win.”
Through the first three series, Mullens was 10-of-13 for 107 yards and a pair of touchdowns. His third series stalled as Daryl Worley made a key breakup, but Bradley Pinion came up with a 64-yard punt to pin Oakland at its own 6-yard line with 5:46 to go in the first half. Carr was sacked, and the Raiders punted.
Mullens didn’t need much time at all on the ensuing drive — the final drive of the half — hitting Richie James on a quick slant that went for 53 yards (47 after the catch). On the next play, he nearly found James again, but the rookie wide out dropped an easily-catchable, would-be touchdown over the middle. After Garçon got turned around looking for a pass interference call, Robbie Gould banged home a 39-yard field goal to give the 49ers a 17-3 lead with 16 seconds to go before the half.
Mullens, 23, finished the first half 12-of-17 for 167 yards and a pair of scores, with a QB rating of 141.1. After a Raheem Mostert fumble to start the second half, tight end George Kittle hauled in a one-handed grab — again on a slant — for a 71-yard gainer. Two plays later, Mullens found Kittle underneath for a 4-yard touchdown.
“I tried to leave it a little inside for him,” Mullens said of his most challenging throw of the night. “I still haven’t seen his catch, but they said it was sick, so I can’t wait to see it. I tried to leave it inside, and he made a great play like he has all year.”
After Mullens hit Kittle on a 17-yard, across-his-body throw on the next drive, the 49ers got a 52-yard, zig-zagging follow-me touchdown run by Mostert, weaving behind McGlinchey for the final 20 yards.
“I don’t know too many plays that come to mind where I’ve had to do that,” said McGlinchey. “It was a fun one, for sure, until I had to get over to the sideline and catch my breath. I couldn’t even really celebrate too hard, because I had to go on field goal, so I was exhausted. It was a rough five minutes afterwards, but it was worth it.”
San Francisco would add a 25-yard Gould field goal for the final score, though spirits were somewhat dampened by the fact that Raheem Mostert went down with a broken arm with 4:27 left in the third quarter. He’s likely out for the rest of the season.
As for what the future holds for the 49ers’ quarterback position, head coach Kyle Shanahan said the team is considering keeping Mullens as the starter next week against the New York Giants.
“Nick knows the offense as well as anyone,” Shanahan said. “He’s been here since day one.”
During his time at Southern Mississippi, Mullens didn’t break Brett Favre’s quarterbacking records. Technically, he broke Austin Davis’s records for career passing yards, single-season passing yards (twice), single-game passing yards, passing touchdowns in a career and passing touchdowns in a season. It was Davis (2008-11) who broke Favre’s records, initially.
Before Thursday’s game, Mullens got a text message. It was from Favre: “No pressure. Just be yourself.”
Two days ago, Mullens mused about how he couldn’t take anything — any tips, any techniques, any quarterbacking knowledge — from watching Favre’s film. They’d spent several days together before the 2017 draft, and the thing that stuck out most was the stories.
“The way he plays the game, he’s so good naturally that you just watch and say, ‘Man, it’d be sweet to be that good,'” Mullens said.
After the game, as he walked off the field, Mullens struggled to hold back tears of joy. He put his hand over his face, but as he entered the tunnel, he let the tears come. Then, he got a call. It was Favre.
“He just told me how proud of me he was,” Mullens said.