Nick Mullens' big debut should be enough to get another start

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Less than 24 hours after Nick Mullens posted one of the greatest statistical debuts in NFL history, San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan wasn't ready to name him the starter for the team's next game. Or, if he was, he wasn't ready to do so in a public forum.

“I don’t need to decide yet, so I’m taking my time with it," Shanahan said Friday. "Also, I wouldn’t want to do that with all the guys out of the building. I’d like the whole team in here, too, when I decide that.”

On the heels of the Niners' 34-3 demolition of the Oakland Raiders and Mullens' impressive debut, in which he threw for 262 yards and three scores, there doesn't seem to be much for Shanahan to consider when choosing between Mullens and C.J. Beathard as his starter for the Nov. 12 game against the New York Giants. At least on the surface, it's clear Mullens should get another opportunity even if Beathard is fully recovered from his right wrist injury.

With the Niners getting four days off after their Thursday night victory, the eventual decision will come down to a variety of factors leading to one primary criterion.

“You’d love to give people who deserve it and earn it and everything, but it’s all about who gives you the best chance to win," Shanahan said. "That can be a week-to-week decision, that can be a quarter-to-quarter decision. You do everything you can to win games.”

Mullens' first opportunity came not because he was considered the quarterback who was best but because he was the healthiest (and thus most capable that night) of leading the 49ers to a victory.

To any outside observer, Mullens did more than his share in helping the 49ers get their second victory. He completed 16 of 22 passes for a rating of 151.9. That passer rating was the best by a quarterback making his debut with at least 20 attempts since 1970, and his trio of touchdown tosses made him the first Niners quarterback to do that in his first game with the team, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

That the 2017 undrafted free agent out of Southern Miss accomplished all of that in his first NFL regular-season game on a short week in which the Niners conducted zero regular practices only speaks further to the job he did. To be sure, Mullens deserves every bit of the credit he's gotten in the days since his big night.

But it's also worth taking a deeper dive into the performance so as to keep proper perspective. While Mullens earned the plaudits thrown his way, there were other things contributing to his success. Namely, the Raiders' abysmal defensive effort and Shanahan's well-designed game plan and playcalling.

According to NFL Next Gen Stats, none of Mullens' passes were thrown into a tight window (defined by Next Gen as a throw to a pass-catcher with 1 yard or less of separation). In the process, Mullens became the first quarterback this season with at least 20 attempts and none into a tight window.

More often than not, the Niners had pass-catchers running wide open. On top of that, the Raiders were unable to generate pressure on Mullens. Mullens was under duress just four times, allowing him to sit in the pocket and wait for targets to break free. The Raiders rarely attempted to manufacture pressure, sending four or fewer pass rushers on 18 of Mullens' pass attempts. He was 13-of-18 for 201 yards and three touchdowns when the Raiders didn't send any additional pass rushers.

“He did some really good things in that game, helped us have one of our better games of the year,” Shanahan said. “It’s always easier when you play, I think, at a high level on all three phases ... But, Nick wasn’t just handing it off and protecting the lead. He made some plays that were one of the reasons we got that lead.”

On Friday, Shanahan noted Mullens' ability to get to the second option in his progression, something many young quarterbacks aren't able to do. Mullens' 71-yard completion to tight end George Kittle was an example, as Mullens looked off his first option, worked back to the middle of the field, then made a difficult throw to lead Kittle into a big play.

Shanahan also noted that Mullens made good decisions in the red zone -- the tape shows Mullens freezing defenders with his eyes to leave a throwing lane for an open receiver on a couple of passes deep in Oakland territory -- as well as Mullens' ability to get rid of the ball quickly, handle the huddle and alter his arm angle to make some throws.

On the rare occasions Mullens was under pressure, he showed poise, going 3-of-4 for 77 yards, and he was plenty comfortable using Shanahan's favored play-action concepts, completing 6-of-8 for 94 yards and two scores on such plays.

"I think I'm here for a reason and it was my opportunity to prove that I can play," Mullens said.

Whether Mullens will continue to play will be up to Shanahan. In the end, it's hard to imagine Mullens' debut wasn't enough to garner at least another start.