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.