SANTA CLARA — Nick Mullens knew he screwed up.
It was his final throw of the 49ers’ 14-9 loss to the Chicago Bears. There was 1:14 remaining in the fourth quarter, and it was fourth and 4 from the Bears’ 45-yard line. The 49ers were on the verge of beating a playoff team if they could score a touchdown.
Mullens scrambled out of the pocket to his right and saw nothing but green grass in front of him. A direct line to the first-down marker. He could have skipped for the first down, somersaulted out of bounds, stopped the clock and moonwalked back to the huddle.
Instead, Mullens cocked back and threw deep downfield to wide receiver Marquise Goodwin, who was covered. The pass landed out of bounds. That ended the 49ers’ chances, and they lost, 14-9. Mullens had made a fundamental mistake, perhaps due to inexperience. The 49ers’ record is now 4-11. The Bears are 11-4.
“If you look at the film,” Mullens said, “I stood there for 30 seconds just understanding what I had done, and how big of a mistake it was. I’ve been replaying it this whole time we’ve been talking, since I walked off the field. I know exactly what I did. I know exactly what I should’ve done. I know exactly how that game could’ve ended up if we would’ve just made the plays we were supposed to make.”
What exactly does Mullens think he should have done differently?
“I should have ran,” Mullens confessed. “I didn’t run. In the heat of battle, a lot of things are happening fast, split-second decisions. Saw ’Quise down the field. Tried to give him a chance instead of making the simple play. I didn’t make the simple play. It wasn’t a smart decision.”
And it was the one bad decision Mullens made all game.
Mullens faced a high degree of difficulty against the Bears. Coming into the game, the Bears defense had intercepted 26 passes, and limited opposing quarterbacks to an average passer rating of 73 — by far the lowest in the NFL.
Against the Bears, Mullens completed 22 of 38 passes for 241 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. His quarterback rating was 65.8.
“Going against that defense is a very big challenge,” 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said.
First, Shanahan abandoned his running game. Called just three runs and a whopping 21 passes. “You would love to just run it every play, especially versus that pass rush,” Shanahan said. “But the only thing they do better than stop the pass is stop the run. Definitely thought throwing the ball gave us the best chance to win the game.”
Shanahan was misinformed. The Bears actually stop the pass better than they stop the run. Coming into the game, the Bears defense ranked fifth out of 32 teams in fewest yards per rush attempt allowed, and second in fewest net yards per pass attempt allowed.
As a result of Shanahan’s unbalanced play-calling, Mullens got hit six times and sacked once during the second half, and the 49ers scored zero points.
They punted after they got the ball to start the third quarter. Then, the Bears took over from their 10-yard line, drove 90 yards for the touchdown and took a 14-9 lead. Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky completed all nine of his passes during the drive, and 25 of 29 passes the entire game. He could hardly miss.