SF 49ers: Positive quarterback controversy with Jimmy Garoppolo, Nick Mullens

Nick Mullens #4 and Jimmy Garoppolo #10 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)
Nick Mullens #4 and Jimmy Garoppolo #10 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images) /

The SF 49ers aren’t going to start Nick Mullens over Jimmy Garoppolo aside from injury. But a nice little controversy is always fun to look at.

Head coach Kyle Shanahan already said the SF 49ers will start quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo as soon as he’s 100-percent recovered from the high-ankle sprain he suffered in Week 2 against the New York Jets.

As far as Week 3 against the New York Giants, though, it was backup quarterback Nick Mullens‘ show.

Garoppolo was ruled out for the contest at MetLife Stadium, giving Mullens his first start since Week 17 of the 2018 regular season. After looking shaky in relief of Jimmy G in Week 2 against the Jets, Mullens showcased all sorts of poise and confidence against a still-good Giants defense on Sunday.

All to the tune of 343 yards, a touchdown, zero interceptions and a 108.9 passer rating en route to the Niners’ one-sided 36-9 victory over the G-Men.

“Nick was great. He was very poised,” Shanahan told reporters after the game. “We went on a lot of long drives today, which they’re better than not scoring. The long drives can get a little bit exhausting. Especially for me, as I don’t want to have to call that many plays. But Nick kept his composure.”

With San Francisco’s ground attack struggling early and only finishing with an average of 2.7 yards per carry, Mullens was a key reason why the SF 49ers still dominated the time-of-possession battle, 39:44 to 20:16.

And while Mullens isn’t necessarily the most dynamic player out on the field, his instincts and reads, particularly on some narrow-window throws, were notably on point during the victory.

“I’m not the fastest or most athletic guy. But I think I react pretty quick,” Mullens said of his efforts after the game.

What was particularly impressive was Mullens developing some chemistry with rookie wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, who led all San Francisco pass-catchers with five catches for 70 yards and also added a rushing touchdown on the ground.

This play from Mullens to Aiyuk was exceptional:

Considering how much San Francisco wants to develop Aiyuk, one of the team’s two first-round NFL Draft picks from this year, Mullens getting into that groove with the rookie receiver is an excellent sign moving forward.

Will it create a quarterback controversy, though?

SF 49ers won’t have a quarterback controversy, just a beneficial competition

OK, so the Niners aren’t suddenly going to shake things up and give Mullens the reins over Garoppolo when the latter is cleared to return.

But it is mutually beneficial to all three parties — Mullens, Jimmy G and the SF 49ers — to have Mullens playing well in Garoppolo’s stead.

Yes, there are the long-term ramifications for Mullens and his future in San Francisco. He’ll be a restricted free agent in 2021. And if he has more efforts like the one he put together in Week 3, it seems pretty likely some other quarterback-needy team will want to pry him away from the Niners when the time comes.

Or it serves to push San Francisco to use Mullens as trade bait at some point down the line.

In the interim, though, Garoppolo can afford to be pushed a little bit, especially as critics still exist who think he won’t be the answer for Shanahan and Co. This kind of competition should boost both players’ on-field abilities, and Garoppolo would be better for it.

So would Mullens. Same with Shanahan.

Fortunately, just as the arguments went in 2019 and into this season, the desire to keep Mullens as Garoppolo’s primary backup and not trade him away have panned out well for the SF 49ers.

Next. 5 Niners who'll shine in Week 3 vs. Giants. dark

At least in this crucial road win over New York, Mullens did more than just hold the line in Garoppolo’s place.

Mullens engineered a much-needed win for San Francisco.