With Garoppolo out, backup quarterback Nick Mullens gets a chance to change some minds

Frustration rarely leads to good outcomes, and Nick Mullens admitted he was feeling it after a critical mistake Sunday.

Frustration rarely leads to good outcomes, and Nick Mullens admitted he was feeling it after a critical mistake Sunday.

Mullens threw an interception that Karmen Curl returned 76 yards for a touchdown on the last play in the third quarter, in the San Francisco 49ers’ 23-15 loss to the Washington Football Team at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. Mullens knew he’d forced a pass he shouldn’t have thrown, and didn’t hide his disappointment with himself immediately after the play.

“You’re just trying to make a play to get rid of the ball and it’s just a mishap that happened,” Mullens said after Sunday’s game. “I’ve just got to protect the ball and can’t make that type of mistake that changes the game.”

San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan won’t let Mullens make many more mistakes like that.

The San Francisco backup has been thrust into a starting role since Jimmy Garoppolo suffered an ankle injury Nov. 1 in Seattle, and his interception in Sunday’s game nearly landed him on the bench. Shanahan had C.J. Beathard readying to take over for Mullens.

“It wasn’t all Nick,” Shanahan said. “We didn’t play good around him either. But I did after the pick six, I wanted to give C.J. a chance to warm up.”

By the time Beathard completed his warmups, Mullens was channeling his frustration into key third-down conversions.

San Francisco 49ers quaterback Nick Mullens (4) gets ready to take the snap against the Buffalo Bills during the 3rd quarter at State Farm Stadium on December 7, 2020 in Glendale, Arizona.(Chris Victorio | Special to the S.F. Examiner).

Mullens led the 49ers on their next possession on an 11-play 75-yard scoring march that culminated with a scoring pass to Kyle Juszczyk from the 6. He completed a 2-point conversion pass to Kendrick Bourne to close San Francisco to within 23-15 with more than 10 minutes left in the game.

Frustration may be dirty fuel, but it seemed to energize Mullens.

“You just always answer back,” Mullens said. “You have to be relentless, resilient and always keep fighting and that’s what I’ll always do. No matter what the situation is, focus on the details, keep fighting, focus on the next play and just keep pushing to be better.”

Mullens’ gritty determination has served the 25-year-old well throughout much of a career in which he’s been consistently overlooked.

Mullens signed with San Francisco as an undrafted free agent in May, 2017 out of Southern Miss, where he broke Brett Favre’s single season records for yardage (4,476) and touchdown passes (38).

The 6-foot-1, 210-pounder is considered undersized for his position and his throwing is below average in terms of strength by NFL standards.

Mullens may not have the measurable qualities scouts look for, but he’s shown he can get the job done.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Nick Mullens (4) during the 4th quarter against the bb100/ at State Farm Stadium on December 7, 2020 in Glendale, Arizona.(Chris Victorio | Special to the S.F. Examiner).

He made quite a first impression in his NFL debut, throwing for 262 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-3 victory over the Oakland Raiders.

His 151.9 passer rating in that game was the best in an NFL debut by anyone with at least 20 attempts since 1970. Through his first 10 career starts he combined for 2,820 passing yards, the fifth most in the NFL since 1950.

With Garoppolo injured for much of his season, Mullens has established himself as a capable backup. Through nine games (including eight starts) he’s completed 190 of 290 pass attempts for 2,218 yards with 10 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

It’s not clear what role Mullens plays the rest of the season.

The 49ers are hoping to get Garoppolo back on the field, but with just three games remaining the window for returning the oft-injured quarterback that led the team to the Super Bowl last season is closing, especially if they’re eliminated from playoff contention.

Regardless of how this season unfolds, it’s probably best not to bet against the 49ers backup, who always seems to surprise.

In some ways, the sequence that saw Mullens stay on the field in Sunday’s game typifies his career.

Shanahan admitted Mullens play on the scoring drive after the interception forced him to rethink a decision he’d already made to pull him as soon as Beathard was ready.

“Nick made some big third downs and we went down there and scored,” Shanahan said. “So, after he took us on the scoring drive, I changed my mind.”

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