Nick Mullens went to sleep Wednesday night knowing he would likely make his NFL debut the following evening against the Oakland Raiders.
What the little-known 49ers quarterback didn’t anticipate was receiving a congratulatory call from NFL legend Brett Favre, that he would find 600 text messages on his phone afterward, or that he would answer questions from reporters postgame about listening to crowd noise from Apple Music while practicing play calls.
“I slept good, except I woke up about every hour,” Mullens said. “But those hours were great.”
The Southern Miss product likely had an even harder time dozing when he hit the pillow on Thursday, knowing he had one of the more impressive quarterback debuts in NFL history in the final iteration of the “Battle of the Bay.”
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The 49ers eviscerated the Las Vegas-bound Raiders, 34-3. And Mullens was the star.
The second-year pro led the 49ers to their second win of the season, completing 16 of 22 for 262 yards and three touchdown passes. His 151.9 passer rating was the best since Alex Smith in a victory over the Cardinals in October 2012 — and the third-highest of any quarterback in the organization’s rich history.
“We were just keeping our secret weapon ready to go,” coach Kyle Shanahan quipped.
If you haven’t heard of Mullens, there’s good reason. He went undrafted out of Southern Miss in 2017 and spent last season, plus the first three weeks of this year, on the practice squad. He was only elevated to the active roster after Jimmy Garoppolo suffered his season-ending left knee injury in Kansas City.
Mullens’ practice reps since joining San Francisco were limited to the scout team, where he would mimic the upcoming opponent on the schedule, not run Shanahan’s complex offense.
Still, Mullens has become known around the Santa Clara headquarters for his work ethic, particularly trying to learn the nuances of Shanahan’s deep playbook. A key reason why the 49ers’ offense had its best outing of the season Thursday: Mullens had the full breadth of the scheme at his disposal, which wouldn’t have been possible with quarterback Tom Savage, who was signed Oct. 23, despite Savage having far more experience in his three NFL seasons.
“Bringing in someone who hasn’t been in, you have to limit (the game plan),” Shanahan said, “but it makes it a lot tougher on everyone else. Just the fact that Nick has been here for the entire time, you don’t have to limit anything offensively with the play calls and everything and I think it makes everyone else’s job a lot easier.”
Even more impressive was Mullens’ performance coming on a short week. The Thursday night game meant the 49ers only had walkthroughs on Tuesday and Wednesday – which are far more abbreviated than their normal practice sessions with a full week to prepare.
“He’s a machine in there and I was happy for him,” said Shanahan. “Just how locked in he is, just his detail and how he prepares for a game each week. There was no difference in him knowing the game plan this week than last year when he didn’t have a chance of playing.
“That’s what I mean by a machine. He’s always working. He’s always studying. He’s always acting like he’s going to be the starter and today he got his opportunity and it paid off.”
Mullens’ night started quickly. He got the jitters out by completing his first pass to receiver Marquise Goodwin, going for 11 yards and a quick first down. He capped his first drive with a 24-yard touchdown pass to Pierre Garçon, who was left wide open because Mullens’ play-action fake worked on Raiders defenders.
His first incompletion didn’t come until his seventh attempt. He led touchdown drives on four of the 49ers’ first six possessions. His other two touchdowns went to receiver Kendrick Bourne and George Kittle.
The performance led to Favre, a Hall of Famer and fellow Southern Miss alum, calling in during Mullens’ appearance on NFL Network’s post-game show. The two developed a relationship because Mullens’ broke a number of Favre’s school records.
“He just told me how proud of me he was,” Mullens said. “He sent me a message before the game. He said, ‘No pressure. Just be yourself,’ and that’s what I tried to do before the game and during the game. So, just tried to stay calm out there and lead the offense.”
The highlight of the night came when Mullens found Kittle (four catches, 108 yards) over the middle of the field, between four defenders, and Kittle made a one-handed catch. He scampered for a 71-yard gain after bursting away from linebacker Tahir Whitehead and scored his third touchdown of the season two plays later.
“I closed my eyes, 100-percent,” Kittle said of the left-handed snag. “I just kind of stuck an arm out there and it fell in my hand.”
Kittle said he wasn’t surprised by Mullens’ performance. He watched the quarterback prepare every week as if he were starting, even though the bulk of his NFL career has been as a third-stringer with no shot at seeing the field.
Said Kittle: “My favorite story that I’ve heard so far is that when we have away games, he puts on his headphones super loud, (with) crowd noise, and then he calls the plays out loud so he gets used to calling them with noise all around him. That’s the best thing I’ve seen so far.”
Mullens was surprised his tight end knew that particular key to his preparation.
“I don’t know how he found that out because I only do that at my house. But, yeah, it’s a good way to prepare,” said Mullens.
The emergence of Mullens offers the 49ers an unexpected development in the midst of their 2-7 campaign. They don’t play again until they host the Giants on “Monday Night Football” on Nov. 12 — 11 days away.
In the meantime, Shanahan will have to decide whether to start Mullens again, or go back to Beathard, who will likely be healthy after being demoted to backup because of his right wrist injury.
“Definitely we’ll consider it,” Shanahan said. “Definitely not thinking about that right now, but our whole team played very well. Nick definitely did.”