Nick Mullens' struggles show there's still a long way to go in backup QB battle

TAMPA, Fla. -- Although the conditions weren’t perfect, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Nick Mullens stepped into a pretty strong situation for his first two NFL starts. Relatively speaking.

Mullens’ first two NFL appearances both came at home against two of the league’s worst teams in the Oakland Raiders and the New York Giants. Both entered their game against the Niners with little pass rush to speak of and Mullens put up sufficiently solid statistical performances in both games.

Sunday’s 27-9 loss came against another team that hasn’t exactly been lighting up the league but given a change in setting and circumstance, Mullens and the offense had their roughest outing in the month of November.

“I don’t think he played very well,” coach Kyle Shanahan said of Mullens. “Just looking at some of our situations but it wasn’t all him. No one played very well, especially in the pass game. All around we didn’t do good enough.”

After getting plenty of time to sit back and go through his progressions in his first two games, Mullens found no such comfort in the pocket against the Bucs. Instead, he was under siege early and often.

In the first half alone, Mullens took more than twice as many quarterback hits and sacks (nine) than he completed passes (four). That came after two games in which the 49ers didn’t allow a sack, the first time since 2000 they’d gone consecutive games without yielding a sack.

With pressure in his face for most of the day, Mullens and the offense never seemed to find a rhythm, save for the efforts of running back Matt Breida.

“I don’t know exactly what it was, but there was a time there where we just couldn’t stay on schedule,” Mullens said. “We had a couple of second- and third-and-longs and any time you get in those situations, it’s hard to fight back from. We unfortunately put ourselves in those situations and it was hard to overcome.”

Mullens finished 18-of-32 for 221 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions while taking nine quarterback hits and being sacked four times. It was his lowest completion percentage (56 percent), yardage output and passer rating (62.1) in his three starts to date.

Things don’t figure to get any easier for Mullens from here as the Niners now travel to play the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Stadium on Sunday.

While Raymond James Stadium was hardly a loud, challenging environment in terms of crowd participation, Mullens will get plenty of that next week. After that, the Niners should have an even clearer picture of how Mullens could figure into the plans moving forward.

There haven’t been any signs of a change back to C.J. Beathard yet and on Monday Shanahan named Mullens his starter against Seattle but left the door open for a change, perhaps even in the next game if Mullens struggles.

Shanahan has said that Mullens will be the starter until he says otherwise but acknowledged after Sunday’s loss that he will continue to evaluate the position this week as he does with every position every week.

"I was good to go with him," Shanahan said. "I know that I said Nick didn’t play very well, but no one played well and I didn’t coach well. It was all of us. Nick did a good job in his first two games. It was not the reason that happened [Sunday] so that’s not fair to do that to him.”

Likewise, it’s unfair to render judgment on any quarterback after just three NFL games, especially considering Mullens just played the Bucs without starting receivers Marquise Goodwin and Pierre Garcon.

Regardless, the Mullens who etched his place NFL history with his first start is now a distant memory. The Mullens who was solid if unspectacular against the Giants also didn’t make an appearance against Tampa Bay.

Instead, Mullens was put into his most challenging circumstances yet. It’s no coincidence that he also had his roughest day. The blame is far from falling all on him but this latest loss offered more evidence of his limitations.

“I think it was a combination of a lot of things, sometimes it’s just the way it goes,” Mullens said. “I think we have to work better collectively as a unit and that works with me and we just have to watch the tape and go back to work. It’s frustrating, we thought we had a chance, we definitely had our chances and we didn’t take advantage of them and a lot of that starts with me.”

How many more opportunities Mullens will get to correct those issues remains to be seen. His limitations are to be expected of an undrafted quarterback in his second NFL season.

But Sunday’s loss should also serve as a reminder that the 49ers still have a lot to figure out when it comes to choosing a primary backup for starter Jimmy Garoppolo.