Nick Mullens made some nice throws Sunday, and some he never should have attempted.  (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

By now it almost seems cruel to keep running Nick Mullens out there as the 49ers quarterback.

Everyone can sense the poor guy is giving it everything he’s got. He’s energetic and enthusiastic. He is cooperative and honest in interviews.

And he just can’t do it.

Asked to assess Mullens’ performance in Sunday’s 23-15 loss to Washington, former 49er QB Jeff Garcia said he was “very sporadic, late on throws, not very accurate.” That’s a trifecta of bad quarterbacking.

But what are you going to do? If anything third stringer C. J. Beathard hangs onto the ball longer. Jimmy Garopollo is still high ankle sprained, presumably returning for the last two games.

But this was definitely the nadir for Mullens. I have a recurring vision of him sprinting frantically down the field, hoping to catch the defender who had just taken the ball from him. No such luck. His fumble was returned 47 yards to the end zone and his long, looping throw to the sideline was collected by a waiting Kamren Curl and returned for a 76-yard TD.

Coach Kyle Shanahan called the interception return and the 17 points given up by his offense a “borderline backbreaker.” And if that was only “borderline,” I think we’d all hate to see a genuine backbreaker.

The really tough part was both turnovers were the kind of preventable mistakes that Mullens has clearly been drilled on. The fumble came with him holding the ball in one hand in traffic, a recipe for a swatted turnover. And kudos for going to alternate receiver choices, but that pick personified the Mullens experience.

It was the end of the third quarter, the game was in reach, 16-7, and he had the team moving. He had just converted a third-and-11. They were inside the Washington 25, it was second-and-two. Mullens was flushed out of the pocket, spotted Kyle Juszczyk as his outlet and tried a long throw to the sideline while on the move. Curl was standing five yards up the field, waiting and watching Mullens. It is true that Juszczyk turned upfield, but Curl broke on the ball immediately.

Again, it’s second down. You’re on the edge of the red zone. There is nothing there. Throw it away.

Afterward, for the first time, Mullens looked shell-shocked (at least to someone watching on a screen.) He must have said, “I have to take care of the ball” five times. What you have to wonder is if he has lost the trust of the team. Have the players given up on him?

All of which is building into a big, tight ball of quarterback anxiety over these last three games. And that’s true for everyone, from GM John Lynch to third-stringer C. J. Beathard. And, by the way, you can count on us in the media to try to contribute plenty of wild speculation and knee-jerk opinions.

But consider: If the 49ers stick to the Jimmy G for the last two games plan, there’s still next week’s game with Dallas to deal with. Do you stick with Mullens? Or go with Beathard?

Because the 49ers could beat Dallas. It’s not just their 4-9 record. The Cowboys were publicly called out by their former franchise quarterback, Troy Aikman last week. The Hall of Famer said “I feel like they gave up a little bit,” in a loss to Baltimore.

And if the 49ers were to beat Dallas they would keep their faint, but the mathematical, chance of making the playoffs alive. Which would then make the game with Arizona, the day after Christmas, kind of a big deal.

So to review: Shanahan has to make a call on a starter for the Dallas game. Mullens probably, but Beathard has to believe this could be his last chance to show something to the rest of the league. Mullens, meanwhile, wants a shot at redeeming himself in hopes that his career is not over.

And now this Garoppolo start is taking on oversize importance. He, of course, is well versed in the chatter around the team that there is the consideration of cutting ties with him and saving some $25 million in each of the next two years. He’ll be coming off an extended injury layoff, and he knows every move will be scrutinized. We keep talking about Garoppolo’s “even keel” personality. This would be a great time to show that.

And, let’s not forget that Shanahan/Lynch are going to have to make a quarterback call. They can remember what Jimmy G. did in the past, but they’re going to judge him on what he sees right here and now. It is critical that they get this right.

So, given all that, I am going to offer a little unsolicited advice. Earlier in the year Shanahan made a reference to the fact that he doesn’t exactly toss compliments around. Which is very football, although maybe a little old school.

And he’s a stickler for getting things right. Which – not many compliments, but quick to point out errors – is kind of a setup for undermining confidence. Shanahan is a smart guy. I continue to be impressed with how he’s handling public appearances – despite this awful year, he hasn’t gotten defensive.

But playoffs or not, the last three weeks of the season are going to be fraught with tension. Decisions will be made there that will affect the direction of the franchise for years to come.

I just feel like everybody could use a little positive reinforcement.



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