Nick Mullens cares not for your caveats. Nor should he, if we’re being honest. The San Francisco 49ers were desperate for a win, and they called upon Mullens to help lead them to one. Mullens did so in impressive fashion, completing 16-of-22 passes for 262 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-3 rout of the Oakland Raiders on “Thursday Night Football.” His 151.9 passer rating set a new NFL record for a quarterback in his debut.
Mullens is now 1-0 as a starting quarterback, and the 49ers notched their second win of the season. There is no asterisk. Any issues facing a one-win Raiders team are none of the 49ers concern, which is why all of the postgame attention focused on Mullens’ tremendous primetime performance.
“You never know until you see someone (do it),” Kyle Shanahan said postgame. “He didn’t surprise us in terms of – the game’s not too big for Nick. He’s very poised. He is always locked in. The guys, they respect him. He earned a lot of respect in the preseason – them watching him play.”
The second-year pro out of Southern Miss spent his entire rookie season on the practice squad. Mullens created some intrigue this summer after a game-winning touchdown pass against the Dallas Cowboys in the preseason, but again he assumed a role on the practice squad to open 2018. San Francisco promoted Mullens following Jimmy Garoppolo’s season-ending ACL tear, and he backed up C.J. Beathard for the ensuing five games. Although there was a real possibility that Mullens would get the nod in Week 9, it wasn’t until Thursday morning that he found out he’d be starting for sure.
That opportunity doesn’t come for every bottom-of-the-roster player. Many guys spend years grinding on practice squad’s around the league for multiple years to no avail. That’s why Thursday night resonated with everyone watching the nationally-televised broadcast. It’s rare that players go from a nobody to a household name. It’s even more uncommon for that transition to take place in a matter of three hours.
Hall of Fame defensive lineman Warren Sapp tweeted pregame, “Who is Nick Mullen?” The irony of Sapp omitting the “s” in the quarterback’s surname makes the social post even better. After a pair of touchdown passes on the 49ers first two possessions, Sapp quickly changed his tune. That’s not to take a shot at Sapp, but merely to emphasize that his tweets illustrate the theme of the night. Heck, even Twitter got in on the fun by verifying Mullens’ account midgame.
All of the hoopla was magnified by what snowballed into a decisive 49ers victory in the fan-fueled “Battle of the Bay.”
“It’s everything I dreamed of,” Mullens told Fox’s Erin Andrews postgame. “It’s only one game, which is important. I’ve been in the organization for two years and tried to learn as much as I could and prepare like I am the starter every week. This was my week. You’ve got to take advantage of opportunities when they come, and they came.”
That sentiment is important. The win, while emphatic, doesn’t erase all frustrations from San Francisco’s 1-7 start. But it was still a night to feel good about regardless.
The 49ers locker room was full of praise for Mullens. Matt Breida and Marquise Goodwin each shared that they weren’t surprised by the quarterback’s big night, noting that he’s looked the part every day in practice. Veteran tight end Garrett Celek was beaming amid his excitement for the young QB. The common thread from everyone surrounded the quarterback’s week-to-week approach.
“He’s been working very, very hard for the last two years,” Joe Staley said. “Obviously, since he got here as an undrafted quarterback just trying to make the roster as a rookie, his work ethic has shown every single day since he’s been here. I knew, and everyone in this locker room knew, that he was ready for this moment because he prepared for it.”
George Kittle shared a fun nugget about Mullens’ study habits. Apparently the quarterback calls plays at home while blasting crowd noise into his ear buds. Mullens confirmed the story, adding that he scoured Apple Music to find the proper “song.”
“He’s a guy that is more prepared than coach Shanahan, I swear, for our games,” Kittle said. “It doesn’t matter if he’s second string, third string, he is a guy that prepares every week like he is the starter and the guy. That’s completely on him. That’s not anyone telling him he should study more, but that’s just him being 100 percent prepared.”
The challenge of a short week is matched by the relief on the backend in what turns into a pseudo bye week. Players and coaches will enjoy a few well-deserved days off that will be relished following Thursday night’s win.
Shanahan hasn't decided who will start at QB moving forward, but it's a safe bet that Mullens will remain under center. Neither party seemed overly concerned to rush the decision. The 49ers were a team desperate for a win, and they captured one against their cross-town rivals behind a primetime debut of a no-name third-stringer. That’s a moment worth savoring.