Rest assured that the play that Nick Mullens didn’t make at the end of Sunday’s 14-9 loss to the Chicago Bears will linger with him only forever, because it started eating at him immediately.
As it should have, because that’s how disappointment is supposed to work.
“I started thinking about it the second I threw it,” the 49ers quarterback who has been playing this season with the casino’s money said after the one play that will eat him all winter, spring and summer -- the time he threw a low-percentage deep pass instead of running for a mortal-lock/time-saving first down in the game’s waning seconds.
“I’ve been thinking about it all the time I’ve been here (behind the press room podium); what I did, what I should have done, what could have happened . . .”
In fairness, though, there is no guarantee that he would have converted that fourth-and-four at the Bears’ 45 into a game-winning touchdown. He had the first down and a clear field to the sideline so he could have run out of bounds at, say, the 35 with 1:05 to play, a new set of downs and a 50-50 shot at genuine heroism against one of the game’s best defenses.
The drive could have, given that it was the Bears, been stopped in field goal range, which wouldn’t have helped the 49ers at all.
But it was Mullens’ choice that he is kicking himself for. It was the wrong choice, the rookie’s choice, a teachable moment of a hard lesson.
And it should sting, not because it feels good to rub his nose in it, but because it is how close he is to being the impact quarterback nobody believed he could be when he came out of Southern Mississippi. This is no longer a lark, or something to do before reality sets in – Nick Mullens can play in this league, and there will be opportunities for him to atone for this stain on his resume.
Not erase it, mind you. He will hold it to his chest and let it imprint itself upon him so he can better revel in his next game situation success. That’s how the system works for athletes. Today’s colossal gaffe can eat you, or you can eat, and Mullens is eating it.
His performance against this elite Chicago defense was otherwise solid and winnable. True, it was narrow-margin football because the 49ers didn’t have the ball for very much of the second half, but they only ran the ball three times in that half (against 20 passes) and still failed to breach the Chicago 20-yard line. And in that, the only play they got off was Mullens’ pass over the middle that ran slightly ahead of Marquise Goodwin and was intercepted by linebacker Danny Trevathan.
And yet, Mullens wasn’t deducted points by either head coach Kyle Shanahan or any of his teammates, mostly because nobody knew more about the devastating nature of the play than Mullens himself. Anything more would have been piling on, which incidentally is what had happened minutes earlier when Chicago quarterback Mitchell Trubisky was clocked by another eager rookie, Marcell Harris, after he slid for what would have been a first down.
[RELATED: Mullens laments 'stupid turnover,' missed opportunities]
Therein lies the tale of the day. One quarterback ran, one did not. The one that will be remembered will be the one who didn’t, but Mullens can make it worth his while next week in Los Angeles, next year in training camp here, or in his next port of call.
You see, he’s earned his way into quarterback discussions not only here but with other teams in the NFL, and he will have plenty of opportunities to apply what he learned face-first Sunday. He forgot the moment but he has nearly guaranteed himself many more.
Mistakes are meant to be absorbed and made educative, and Nick Mullens has been given his. Now we’ll see if he can correctly choose how to make it work to his benefit.