After two very costly turnovers in the 49ers' loss to Washington last Sunday, Nick Mullens spoke about needing to focus on the details, and there’s more than one person who agrees with him.
On Friday, Kyle Shanahan explained how important footwork is for Mullens in order to improve his productivity and reduce his mistakes. The 49ers coach has seen the third-year quarterback struggle as his footwork has declined.
“I think he's gotten away from it a little bit, which happens when guys go through a little bit of adversity,” Shanahan said. “It happens when you go through a pass rush like we had last week and that's what you always want to come back to.”
Mullens’ accuracy has been wildly inconsistent. Former 49ers quarterback and NBC Sports Bay Area analyst Jeff Garcia told me he agrees with Shanahan that the quarterback’s fundamentals have become questionable.
“I do believe that he is a mentally sharp kid,” Garcia said. “But I do believe that there are a couple of mechanical things that he can improve upon. It doesn’t mean that he has to be a scrambler or this tremendous athlete, but there’s a sense of pocket presence that I feel is missing with him and part of it is just from his mechanics.”
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In Mullens’ nine appearances in 2020, he has completed 190 of his 290 attempts. His 65.6-percent completion rate ranks him No. 21 in the NFL, but he has thrown as many interceptions (10) as he has touchdowns.
Mullens’ 3.4-percent interception percentage ranks him 33rd out of 35 qualified starters according to Pro Football Reference. His 10 interceptions are the eighth most by any starting quarterback in the NFL.
Garcia believes that Mullens doesn’t need to have a rocket for an arm or incredible scrambling abilities to succeed. Instead, the Southern Miss product needs to refocus on the basics.
“His feet, to me, are a big issue,” Garcia said. “Tom Brady has good feet and great pocket awareness. He’s not a great athlete. There are a ton of guys that have been extremely successful at the position that have been very average as far as foot speed is concerned but they have great presence and awareness and they help their offense align out by how they utilize the pocket.
“Him sitting at the back of a 5-7 step drop puts his left and right tackle at a very difficult position to protect him because he is not hitching up into the pocket. When you don’t hitch up into the pocket, you don’t allow that pocket to really form around you.”
Mullens appears to let his fundamentals lapse as he faces more pressure from opposing defenses. He hesitates, unsure of his target and then when he attempts to throw, he is often flat footed, not utilizing the full power of his body which results in errant passes.
Garcia added that the West Coast offense has a quarterback’s footwork tied into route concepts, and how different concepts have different drops tied to them. Inconsistent footwork means a lack of coordination between a quarterback and his receivers.
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What might be the most concerning part of Mullens play to Garcia is his how the quarterback has not developed since his eight starts in 2018. In fact, it seems Mullens has regressed. Garcia sees it as a cyclical problem that starts with his footwork and leads to a lack of confidence in his performance.
"It starts to affect your decision making and what you’re seeing," Garcia said. "I just see him at a point now where he’s trying to not make a mistake. When you try not to make a mistake, that’s when you do make mistakes."
Mullens will face a less decorated defensive line on Sunday facing the Dallas Cowboys than he did in Week 14. If he can stay the course, sticking to his fundamentals, the 49ers will have a chance to keep their slim playoff hopes alive.