With 1:52 remaining in the fourth quarter, the game was still within reach for the San Francisco 49ers.
Trailing the Chicago Bears 14-9, the 49ers’ defense had just forced a turnover when rookie cornerback Tarvarius Moore punched the ball out of the hands of receiver Allen Robinson. Fellow cornerback Greg Mabin recovered the fumble to give the 49ers a final chance at victory.
Shanahan’s offense, led by quarterback Nick Mullens, took over on their own 24-yard line. Fast forward six plays and 31 yards later and you'd find Mullens, standing in the open field, clutching his facemask in disbelief as his fourth-down pass sailed hopelessly out of bounds to extinguish any hope of a win for San Francisco.
“I mean, I’ve just got to handle the situation better,” Mullens said after the game. “ I should have ran. I didn’t run.”
The former practice squad quarterback was flushed out of the pocket on the offense’s final play, needing just four yards on fourth down with 1:14 still on the clock. As he rolled to his right, a large part of the Bears’ defense had vacated to cover downfield. Mullens had some 20 yards of open field in front of him for which to pick up the first down and more while getting out of bounds to stop the clock. Leonard Floyd was approaching from his left, but he likely could have made up the distance if he had committed to the run. Mullens opted to heave the ball downfield rather than take the easy yardage. The pass was intended for wide receiver Marquise Goodwin, but it fell incomplete out of bounds.
“I saw ‘Quise down the field,” Mullens said. “Tried to give him a chance, instead of making the simple play. I didn’t make the simple play.”
It was an obvious mistake to conclude a tough afternoon from the 49ers’ young quarterback. Mullens completed 22 of 38 passes (57.9 percent) for 241 yards, one interception and a quarterback rating of 65.8 against the Bears’ top-ranked defense. It was his worst statistical performance since the 49ers’ road loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 12.
“You had opportunities to step up, make the big play and you didn’t do that today,” Mullens said when asked if his decision would linger. “I think that’s the thing that hurts worse in these types of losses, is there were things there. There were opportunities there. We didn’t take advantage of those opportunities.”
Despite his regrets, Mullens has managed to put together a respectable season in his seven starts for the 49ers. Including Sunday’s matchup against the Bears, the third-string quarterback turned starter has completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 1,995 yards, 10 touchdowns, seven interceptions and a quarterback rating of 91.2.
“We’ll go back and watch the tape,” Mullens said on his final play of Week 16. “I’ll understand, like I already do, that it was a mistake. Just got to learn from it and handle the situation better.”
Mullens and the 49ers wrap up their 2018 season on the road in Week 17 against a Los Angeles Rams team still battling for playoff positioning.