There’s no doubt that Nick Mullens has the ability to make plays, but when he has struggled, it has been costly for the 49ers.
In the 49ers’ 34-24 loss to the Buffalo Bills on Monday, Mullens finished the game having completed 26 of his 39 pass attempts for 316 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions, but his statistics don’t tell the whole story.
Much of Mullens’ passing yardage came well after the game was out of reach. Only 25 percent of his passing attempts came in the first half, and while mistakes are never good, his came at the most inopportune times.
In the third quarter, the 49ers were at the 1-yard line after Kendrick Bourne was ruled down just shy of the end zone. The team attempted a quarterback sneak, which was negated after Mullens was called for a false start.
On the ensuing play, after being moved five yards further away from the goal line, Mullens’ pass attempt was intercepted by Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White. A score would have cut the 49ers’ deficit to 10 points with nearly 10 minutes left in the game and given them a chance at a comeback.
“Yeah, we went on the silent cadence and I went a little bit too early,” Mullens said after the loss. “Trying to anticipate the snap count, I went a little bit too early. And didn't execute.”
After the game, coach Kyle Shanahan acknowledged his quarterback’s potential on the field, but also his mistakes. Shanahan knew that with the defense’s inability to stop Josh Allen and the Bills' offense, his own offense would need to carry the burden.
“You could see there at the end he made some plays,” Shanahan said. “He can't make those turnovers that he had, can't have that false start that he had there at the inch-yard-line, but I thought he gave us a chance.
“With the way the whole team played altogether, he did need to play better because I think we had to play perfect in a few areas and by no means do I think he played perfect, but there's still stuff to improve on, but there were some good and bad things he did today.”
Mullens agreed there were opportunities to be taken advantage of, but conceded he and the offense simply fell short. In eight games thus far this season, he has an equal number of interceptions (9) as he does touchdowns. Mullens' quarterback ratings range from 51.7 to 128.4.
“I definitely feel the same way as coach does,” Mullens said. “I feel like there was a lot of space in the field for us to attack. We had our opportunities to attack and we just didn’t execute as a group. I think the most important thing, people talk about big plays, but it's big plays at the right times. And that's one thing that I, and us as an offense, have to improve.
“Every game, every play in the game is the most important play. And you don't know when those moments are going to come but to extend drives to flip the field, score touchdowns, every moment is key. And so, the execution level has to be higher.”
Mullens will be leading the 49ers' offense for at least two more games with Jimmy Garoppolo unlikely to return until at least Week 16. The 25-year-old backup quarterback will need to maintain some consistency for the 49ers to keep their playoff hopes alive.