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The Game Manager, Week 10: Nick’d at Nite

The best offense in the league is any team trailing the 49ers in the closing minutes. Which is not ideal. But all the news isn’t bad. Just most of it. Plus: A look back to happier times.

NFL: New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers
Not all heroes wear capes.
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Beat Hard with a Venge... Wait, no. C.J. Beathard didn’t even play. He ceded the franchise to Nick Mullens kind of like how Matt Damon gave the Bourne franchise to Jeremy Renner -- another not very tall guy who grew up idolizing Joe Montana and the Niners. (The question is will Beathard ever re-take it like Damon did.) And Mullens didn’t disappoint, despite his two interceptions, putting up fairly similar production to his first game (more on that later). Still, this game looked awfully familiar, didn’t it? The competent play on offense led by big games from Breida and Kittle building a lead, and then of course the defense choking up that lead when one big stop -- or turnover, if you’re really dreaming -- could’ve salted the win away.

But that’s the thing about the 2018 49ers: They don’t get that one big stop. I mean, what could even be considered their biggest stop of the year? The final Lions drive in Week 2, I guess -- when a big drop on 3rd down and an inaccurate Matthew Stafford pass on 4th, both involving open receivers, clinched the game for the 49ers. Since then, it’s felt like they’ve blown a game every other week. Wait, it hasn’t just felt that way.

Every rational 49ers fan -- and also me! -- knew this was a lost season when Jimmy G went down, but the hidden truth might be that it was lost anyway. Because failing to stop the other team in any meaningful way, especially late in games, might be -- more than the injuries to Garoppolo and McKinnon, et al. -- their defining characteristic. The good news might be all those injuries may have just saved us from watching a lot of crushing 42-38 type losses which cost the 49ers any shot at the playoffs.

Now all these losses do is get them closer to the top of the draft. And maybe the hard lessons Kyle Shanahan is learning about his defense will help him make the necessary changes ahead of the 2019 season and Jimmy G’s second coming,

Mullin’ Mullens

There was no way Nick Mullens was going to be as good as he was in his historic debut, but Mullens still completed 69 percent of his passes, helped the 49ers jump out to a 10-point lead, and almost led them to a miraculous comeback. Take away the two interceptions and he had a very good game.

Wait, I’m just now learning we can’t just remove those two interceptions. They count. So, not a great game by Nick, but respectable nonetheless. Of course, that doesn’t mean Big Nick didn’t show us a few of his flaws. A couple were displayed on his first interception — the mistake of throwing late to the sidelines from the far hash, and the lack of arm strength to get it there.

The throw was also behind his intended receiver, Kendrick Bourne — a slight inaccuracy Mullens repeated throughout the night, even when he was successful. Take his one touchdown pass to Matt Breida, for instance.

Watch that throw again. Breida is wide open and has room to the outside, but Mullens throws it high and behind him, forcing Breida to make a great catch. It’s the same slight inaccuracy which caused his second interception — a ball just behind Marquise Goodwin that could’ve been caught — maybe should’ve been caught — but likely would’ve been caught had it been on target.

But let’s not let a few pesky flaws obscure the positives. For one, Mullens still hasn’t been sacked. I understand it’s a very small sample, but C.J. Beathard was sacked 11 times in the previous two games. And six in the two before that. Now, I realize Mullens has never had to face Aaron Donald, destroyer of worlds, who’s highlight reel against the 49ers looks like John Wick moving through a night club. But Beathard never had a sackless game in his five starts this year, and Mullens has done it back to back to open his career. Probably because he appears to go through his progressions and get the ball out much more quickly than Beathard. Advantage: Mullens.

And that’s before you look at the numbers:

Mullens — Completion %: 70.5, Yards/attempt: 8.4, TD/INT: 4/2, Rating: 104.0,

Beathard — Completion %: 60.4, Yards/attempt: 7.4, TD/INT: 8/7, Rating: 81.8,

I know it’s still small sample size theater, but I’m excited about Mullens, and think he’s better option than Beathard — certainly in the present, and probably in the future. More importantly, Shanahan apparently agrees. Even old Beathard chum George Kittle says he’s a stud, which isn’t all that surprising considering he’s seen Nick in the shower. Plus the whole loving Joe Montana thing when he was a kid has to count for something.

(Bright spot) Stats of the week

I don’t think I’m breaking any news when I say this season has been mostly sad and disappointing. One might say it’s been a humiliating kick in the crotch, if one were Sting. But amid the flaming wreckage of our hopes and dreams, there have been some real bright spots. And dammit, we could use some 49er-related positivity. At least I know I can. So here they are, a few positives from the season so far -- along with the numbers to back them up:

George Kittle

Speaking of Kittle, it’s no secret he’s having a great year, and is developing into one of the best players in the league. You know it. I know it. PFF knows it. Travis Kelce knows it. Nick Mullens knows it.

What you might not know, however, is that Kittle is just 190 yards from becoming the single season record holder in yards receiving for a 49er tight end. He has 776 through 10 games. The current record holder, Vernon Davis, had 965 in 2009. Of course, Davis also tied a then NFL record with 13 touchdowns from the position that year, while Kittle has just three, so that 2009 season V.D. put up still stands out. Incidentally, Davis would again score 13 touchdowns in 2013, but not only was that no longer the record (Rob Gronkowski had 17 in 2001) he didn’t even lead the league (Jimmy Graham had 16).

With just 225 more yards, Kittle would become the first Niner tight end to gain 1,000 yards. I don’t think anybody could’ve predicted that after just his second season, Kittle would own the single season record for yards receiving for a team that’s had as many quality tight ends as the 49ers — all while not skipping a beat when the 49ers went to their backup and third-string quarterbacks.

I’ve been saying he might just be the best all-around TE in the game, and now Future Hall of Famer Reggie Wayne is saying it too.

Matt Breida

When the 49ers signed Jerick McKinnon, there were a lot of folks -- myself included -- who didn’t see him as an every down back, and predicted he wouldn’t rush for 1,000 yards even if entirely healthy. He just wasn’t a workhorse. So it’s certainly notable that after 10 games, Matt Breida -- who was seen as even less of a workhorse-type -- is on pace to gain 1,011 yards this season. That would be more than Carlos Hyde, who seemed the very definition of a workhorse, ever had.

This, despite Breida a) being undrafted, b) starting the year as a backup, and c) missing one start and playing time in several others due to injury. His 5.6 yard per carry average is especially impressive, particularly when you realize his 4.4 average from 2017 was excellent -- and a full half-yard better than Hyde’s. And he’s been just fine between the tackles and in short yardage situations, which were supposed to be his Achilles heel.

Fred Warner

Just FYI: I’m going to keep reminding everyone that before the season I predicted Warner would lead the team in tackles (don’t bother looking at my other predictions — unless you want to be sad). And that he is, with 77. When you’re leading tackler also gives you the best coverage on Odell Beckham Jr. you’ve got someone you can build around.

Richard Sherman

Think about the 49ers defense. Now think about it without Sherman.

Historical Interlude

Let’s remember happier times. I’m going to take the 49er and Giants playing on Monday night -- prior to a historically good matchup next week -- as a reason to look back at one of my favorite Monday Night Football games of all time: the 1990 clash between the 10-1 49ers and the 10-1 Giants.

I’m certainly not the first to think back to that game in the past week. Eric Branch wrote a nice piece in the Chronicle about it this past weekend, and Sportscenter aired a segment on it following the Monday night game. And why not? It was the best matchup in terms of records in Monday night history, which is ironic, since this week’s game was the second worst. And Monday night hasn’t had a matchup much like it since, though the upcoming Rams/Chiefs tilt to be played in Mexico City (or not!) will be close -- both teams are 9-1.

The 1990 matchup could’ve been even more enticing than it already was. Both teams were 10-0 one week prior, and their matchup was being billed as the battle of the unbeatens -- the first time in history two unbeaten teams would meet that late in a season. Then they each went and got beaten soundly by an inferior division rival -- the 49ers lost 28-17 to the 3-7 Rams, and the Giants were trounced 31-13 by the 6-4 Eagles. It’s not hard to see both teams were looking ahead to a game everybody had circled on their calendars.

The game itself was a defensive slugfest, the 49ers winning 7-3. What many remember most is what happened after the game, when Ronnie Lott got in Phil Simms face. What people didn’t know at the time, and what both ESPN and Branch left out of their retrospectives, is why Lott was so incensed. That juicy little nugget came out a couple of years later:

“Lott and Simms went at it that night because 49ers nose tackle Jim Burt, a former Giant and a friend of Simms, told Lott before the game that Simms didn’t have any respect for him. It was not true, and turned out to be Burt’s way of trying to motivate Lott for the game.”

Burt was still stung by the Giants, a team he won a Super Bowl with, releasing him that year and wanted revenge.

“‘Simms said you’re overrated,’ Lott quotes Burt as telling him outside the team hotel in San Francisco five hours before the game. ‘He says you’re washed up, that you’re turning down hits. He claims you don’t want to hit anybody.’ ‘I Was Berserk’”

For a good look at the Lott/Simms confrontation, watch the end of this extended highlight reel from the game — featuring many of the best players of that era, and some of the best to ever play the game:

Who’s got it better worse than us?

In a word: Nobody. Well, the Raiders, but we’ve already used them (twice!). Now that the Giants have beaten the Niners, we can’t lay claim to that lowly honor, and every other team in the league has a better record.

Does that mean, the 49ers couldn’t beat any of them? No. I think they could take Buffalo with the recently signed Matt Barkley under center. Or with the recently cut Nathan Peterman. Or the recently injured Derek Anderson. Or the less recently injured Josh Allen. But they now have three wins thanks to their beatdown of the hapless Jets on Sunday. And they even won at Minnesota, where the 49ers lost with a healthy Jimmy G.

You could argue the Niners would also beat the aforementioned Jets, but again, they’ve at least found a way to win three games. If and when the 49ers get there, we can talk, but until then I’ll go with the draft order. And as much as I’d like to spend a portion of this space each week ridiculing the Raiders... Oh, what the hell, might as well get in one last shot for the road:

For now I’ll just declare the 49ers the best team in the Bay Area and retire this section.


How do you equate the Battle of the Backups between Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard?

This poll is closed

  • 74%
    BDN > CJ (Mullens maniac)
    (168 votes)
  • 3%
    BDN < CJ (Beathard booster)
    (8 votes)
  • 3%
    BDN = CJ (Agnostic)
    (9 votes)
  • 18%
    Not enough data (Nerd)
    (41 votes)
226 votes total Vote Now