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San Francisco 49ers

Five under-the-radar reasons Shanahan had to stick with Mullens

Jon Chik

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Quarterback Nick Mullens and Coach Kyle Shanahan

Forgive us for stating the obvious here at Locked On 49ers, but San Francisco truly had no choice but to go with Nick Mullens over C.J. Beathard. This assessment aims to look beyond the typical go-to statistics and even the eye test to find some under-the-radar reasons why Mullens needs to be the man for the rest of the season.

1. Mullens is set up for big-time success in the upcoming weeks

By sticking with Nick Mullens for foreseeable future, the 49ers have a golden opportunity to propel his confidence through the roof.

Up next, San Francisco gets another primetime home game, this time on Monday Night Football against the 1-7 Giants. Their middle-of-the-road pass defense has likely been hampered by the trade of Eli Apple, and other than Landon Collins, every member of New York’s starting secondary has received a grade of 58.9 or worse from Pro Football Focus, so they could be ripe for the picking when Mullens suits up for start No. 2.

Then, San Francisco gets its bye, giving the coaching staff and Mullens ample time to prepare for a Buccaneers pass defense that has been downright terrible. The Bucs have given up 307.1 passing yards per game (third-worst in the league) and have allowed opposing signal-callers to post a cumulative quarterback rating of 124.3 (dead last in the league).

If he’s on his game like he was against the Raiders, Mullens is more than capable of once again carving up these subpar defensive backfields.

Could C.J. Beathard have also improved against the Raiders and the upcoming slate of weak opponents? It’s possible. It’s also unlikely, seeing as how Beathard struggled mightily in two matchups with the Cardinals and didn’t fare much better in any of his other starts, with the one exception coming in a Monday Night Football clash with the Packers.

With an excellent performance already under his belt, Mullens is primed to keep the ball rolling over his next two games.

 2. “C.J. Beathard is really tough, but…”

It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: Beathard is one of the toughest quarterbacks in the league, and pound-for-pound, he could be the toughest player on the 49ers. He should be commended for routinely pulling himself off the ground and staggering forward, despite absorbing bone-jarring hit after bone-jarring hit.

But that’s the thing. A quarterback’s greatest asset shouldn’t be his physical toughness. Imagine if “toughness” was the first trait that came to mind when discussing Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady. It would be a recipe for disaster because a quarterback can only absorb so many punishing collisions before an inevitable injury.

Whenever anyone talks about Beathard, the discussion inevitably starts with “He’s really tough, but…”. He’s really tough, but he holds onto the ball for way too long. He’s really tough, but he doesn’t have great pocket presence. He’s really tough, but it looks like the 49ers reached when they took him in the third round. He’s really tough, but he’s responsible for far too many turnovers.

Let’s hope Mullens takes the reins, stays upright while avoiding such violent collisions and never even allows us to find out just how tough he is. He’s off to a good start seeing as how he exited Levi’s Stadium with a clean jersey after not getting sacked a single time against the Raiders. Speaking of which…

3. Mullens didn’t take any sacks

Common criticisms of Beathard include a lack of decisiveness, hanging onto the ball for too long and taking too many sacks. In fact, the second-year Iowa product was sacked 18 times in his five starts.

While one game against an unmotivated Raiders team is obviously a small sample size, Mullens flashed quick decision-making and a fast release, which allowed him to stay upright and keep the pass rush off his back.

As Niner fans are well aware, sacks are drive-killers, and Mullens consistently got the ball away while rarely allowing any of Oakland’s pass-rushers to get anywhere near him. It’s not a coincidence that the 49ers put up a season-high 34 points on the same night that they allowed no sacks.

4. Shanahan risked losing the team if he went back to Beathard

Imagine being a player on the 49ers. You and your teammates have suffered six straight losses (five started by Beathard) going into last Thursday’s tilt with the Raiders. The offense has been inconsistent at its best and inept at its worst.

Suddenly, a beacon of hope emerges in the form of an undrafted free agent. With limited expectations, the 23-year-old second-year player makes mincemeat of the Raiders’ defense, completing 16-of-22 passes for 262 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions, igniting your team to a 34-3 victory in front of a national audience.

Imagine if all this happened, Mullens’ incredible performance was ignored by the decision-makers, and they inexplicably turned back to Beathard for the following game. You’d be disheartened, disappointed, bewildered and perhaps fed up with the coaching staff.

As noted at Locked On 49ers, the players have continued to compete hard for Kyle Shanahan and company, despite a lack of wins over the past two seasons, but the second-year head coach would have been playing with fire if he sent Mullens back to the bench.

As it is, Shanahan has recognized that Mullens seized his opportunity, and he has rightfully rewarded him with another primetime start against the Giants. Doing so sends a positive message to the rest of the team, as Shanahan has reinforced the notion that players can earn a spike in playing time if they perform during games.

5. We won!

Simple, but true.

Once again, it’s important to remember that it’s just one game and that Mullens and company were up against a group of players who looked they wanted to be anywhere else in the world.

But Mullens didn’t fly under the radar in his NFL debut; he was the biggest reason why the 49ers routed the Raiders, as he reinvigorated a stagnant offense and performed better than just about anyone could have anticipated.

Beathard’s struggles in the win-loss department have never been caused by a lack of effort and certainly not for a lack of heart, but 1-9 as an NFL starter is 1-9 as an NFL starter. Mullens, meanwhile, is in prime position to improve to 2-0.

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