Grant Cohn: Why can’t Shanahan shower praise on worthy Mullens?

It’s perplexing how head coach doesn’t see what’s obvious to others.|

SANTA CLARA - I am perpetually puzzled by the way Kyle Shanahan talks about Nick Mullens. Astonished may be more like it.

Here is a 23-year-old undrafted-free-agent quarterback who redeemed Shanahan’s season and - who knows? - maybe even saved his job. Yet, when Shanahan talks about Mullens in public, he shows all the enthusiasm of someone discussing his laundry.

As I say, I’m puzzled.

Imagine if Jim Harbaugh coached Nick Mullens. The praise he would lavish on the kid. Harbaugh always praised Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick, and always was on their side publicly. Always presented a united front.

Shanahan generally gives the impression he’s settling for Mullens against his better judgment, like someone who bought a tuxedo at a thrift shop.

Take what Shanahan said about Mullens after his debut against the Raiders. The 49ers had lost six in a row before that game, partially because Shanahan had no clue Mullens was good, and chose to play C.J. Beathard instead after Jimmy Garoppolo tore his ACL.

Against the Raiders, Mullens threw for 262 yards and three touchdowns, and his passer rating was 151.9. He had one of the best debuts by a quarterback in NFL history.

Here’s what Shanahan said about Mullens the next day: “I’m not going to take any credit away from Nick - he did some really good things in that game. (But) it’s always easier when you play at a high level on all three phases. The defense plays that well, it makes it a lot easier on the offense and especially the quarterback.”

Translation: Sure, Mullens’ numbers were good, but he faced the Raiders, and they stink. His performance wasn’t that impressive. C.J. Beathard probably would have played just as well.

Ungracious and petty.

Compare Shanahan’s quote to Harbaugh’s quote about Alex Smith after those two played their first game together in 2011. Smith threw for just 124 yards and no touchdowns in that game. His quarterback was a modest 90.4.

“Smith played exceptionally well,” Harbaugh gushed. “He played tough. He was on the money with his accuracy. His QB rating was very good. He was playing winning football.”

That’s how a head coach should talk about his quarterback. That’s how a head coach builds his quarterback’s confidence.

Three weeks ago, Mullens threw for a gargantuan 414 yards during a loss to the Seattle Seahawks. And to be clear, he wasn’t the reason they lost. After the game, when asked to assess Mullens’ performance, Shanahan said, “I don’t think anyone on our team played that great.”

Totally unwilling to give Mullens even the slightest praise.

Five seconds later, Shanahan complimented rookie wide receiver Dante Pettis, whom the 49ers traded up to get in the second round. “He did a good job when he had the opportunities,” Shanahan said.

So, Shanahan can praise certain players, like Pettis and Beathard. It makes you wonder why Shanahan can’t praise Mullens. I could be wrong, but I think Shanahan is protecting his ego because he traded up for Pettis and Beathard in the draft. Put himself on the line for them. He is invested in them, not nearly as invested in Mullens.

Amazingly, Shanahan still won’t commit to Mullens as the clear-cut No. 2 quarterback for next season. Mullens will have to compete with Beathard during training camp and preseason. Here is Shanahan’s reasoning, which goes back to last preseason, which hardly matters anymore.

“C.J. made it a little bit easier throughout the process of competing in practice and making some of the plays that he did,” Shanahan explained two weeks ago. “That’s why he got all those opportunities. Now that Nick’s gotten (an opportunity), he has gotten better each game. He has played very consistent and I’m very excited that it’s not an easy decision anymore.”

Actually, it’s a no-brainer who’s better. Mullens is way better than Beathard. Shanahan is the one person who doesn’t see that. Or refuses to see. He speaks about Mullens as if he’s a nobody and Mullens and Beathard are interchangeable.

Last Sunday, Mullens beat the Seahawks, and threw for 275 yards. This was a serious accomplishment for Mullens or any quarterback. The 49ers had lost 10 games in a row to the Seahawks.

Here were Shanahan’s lukewarm postgame comments about Mullens: “Similar to the last few weeks. Very efficient, made the plays that were there. Made a few off-schedule plays too. Did a great job escaping the rush on a blitz one time when they brought more than we blocked. Was hoping we could make some of those plays at the end and not go to overtime. They got us on a few protection issues though. Nick ended up holding onto the ball. At least (he didn’t) turn it over.”

In other words, Mullens didn’t improve, the performance wasn’t any better than his previous ones, he did the bare minimum and held the ball too long, so the sacks were his fault. And it’s Mullens’ fault the game went to overtime.

The next day, even Shanahan realized his answer was way off. So, he changed it.

“I thought yesterday was probably Nick’s best game,” Shanahan said, “especially the way he finished it in that fourth quarter. He didn’t complete a lot of balls, but (he got) rid of the ball on some really tough protection situations.”

Even when Shanahan tried his hardest to praise Mullens, he couldn’t really do it. He still focused on what Mullens didn’t do, which was he didn’t complete a lot of balls in the fourth quarter. As if Mullens were at fault, and not the two receivers who dropped his passes.

Shanahan could have said: “Nick did a terrific job. Nick made coolheaded decisions all day long. Nick’s accuracy was the best of the season. I have a lot of respect for Nick’s play. He’s a very good, smart football player who is young and getting better. Nick is rising to the occasion.”

What would it have cost Shanahan to say that?

He doesn’t understand - and this is so sad - he actually gets credit for Mullens. Shanahan didn’t identify him, but was open-minded when quarterbacks coach Rich Scangarello recommended him. Good for Shanahan. And Shanahan coached him up and made him the starter. Praising Mullens would be a form of praising himself. Too bad Shanahan doesn’t get that concept.

But, I’ll tell you this: From the interactions I’ve had with Mullens, he doesn’t need Shanahan’s praise.

You can’t even imagine how self-motivated Mullens is, how determined and serious and smart. He won’t allow anyone to get in his way, not even a coach who withholds praise. Mullens will succeed in the NFL. He will succeed in spite of Shanahan. Let the head coach chew on that.

Grant Cohn covers the 49ers and Bay Area sports for The Press Democrat and in Santa Rosa. You can reach him at

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