It’s Cowboys week.
For fans of the San Francisco 49ers, those three words conjure up memories of great battles through the years, including championships won and championships lost. Another chapter in this storied rivalry will be written on Sunday in Dallas and, while the stakes may not be what they were in the early '70s, '80s or '90s, there is an interesting intersection as it relates to recent 49ers history.
I’ll get to that in a bit.
To start, let’s take a look at where the 49ers were heading into 1999. San Francisco was entering it’s third season under Steve Mariucci and coming off a 1998 season that ended with a loss to Atlanta in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs. Injuries were starting to take a toll on Steve Young, and the franchise was getting worried about the future of the quarterback position. Sure, they had spent a first-round pick in the draft just two seasons earlier on Jim Druckenmiller, but it was clear that he wasn’t what anyone had hoped for. It was time to make a move.
In the 49ers draft room in 1997, there was a split on which quarterback the 49ers should choose. In one corner you had Bill Walsh. Walsh had been brought back into the organization in 1996 as a special advisor and his choice was clear, it should be Jake Plummer out of Arizona State. In the other corner was Vinny Cerrato. At the time, Cerrato was the director of player personnel and he was the person in charge of overseeing the draft. Cerrato wanted Druckenmiller.
The results weren’t pretty. Druckenmiller would finish his 49ers career 21-of-52 for 239 yards with one touchdown and four interceptions.
The 49ers would move on from Cerrato following the 1998 season, and Walsh became the Vice President and General Manager. Upon retaking the reigns, Walsh would go get a quarterback that was a virtual unknown: Jeff Garcia.
Walsh first came to know about Garcia during his second stint as the Head Coach at Stanford University. Back in the 1980s and early '90s Stanford and San Jose State would face each other on a regular basis, and it was usually a lopsided affair as San Jose State just didn’t have the athleticism to keep up. That wouldn’t be the case in 1993. Stanford would go on to win the game, 31-28, but Walsh was left completely impressed by what he saw from Garcia on that day. The Spartans quarterback just kept making play after play to keep his team in the ball game.
The impression that Garcia left on Walsh was such that one of the best NFL minds of all time would make calls all around the league to tell them that they owed it to themselves to give Garcia a look. Nothing ever materialized and Garcia would eventually go to the Canadian Football League, signing with the Calgary Stampeders.
Garcia’s time in Calgary would set him up for what he’d eventually be tasked with in San Francisco, replacing a legend. When Garcia signed with the Stampeders, they were in the middle of a championship run with Doug Flutie. In 1995, his second season in Calgary, Garcia would be thrust into the starting lineup due to injury. In just his second start, Garcia would set the team record for passing yards in a game with 546 along with six touchdown passes. The ensuing quarterback controversy would see Flutie moving on to Toronto and Garcia taking over the starting role full time. In 1998, his third full season as the starting quarterback, he would lead the Stampeders to a Grey Cup victory with an 80-yard drive that would culminate with a game winning field goal.
While Walsh was confident in what Garcia could bring to the team, the same could not be said for Steve Mariucci or the 49ers fan base. On the back of a strong preseason, Garcia would be named the backup quarterback heading into 1999 and Druckenmiller would be released.
1999 would be a season of change in San Francisco.
After splitting their first two games to open the season, San Francisco would go to Arizona to face the Cardinals on Monday Night Football. With 28 seconds left to play in the first half, Aeneas Williams would knock Young out of the game with a concussion, ending his season and his career.
The end of Youngs playing career was the beginning of Garcia’s in the NFL.
After escaping Arizona with a win, Garcia would make his first NFL start the next week, leading the 49ers to a rousing victory over the eventual AFC Champion Tennessee Titans. Despite the early success, fortunes would soon take a down turn for Garcia and the 49ers. An eight-game losing streak would follow and, during a cold and miserable day at Candlestick Park against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Garcia would be benched in favor of Steve Stenstrom. Garcia would eventually regain the starting role, leading the 49ers to victory over Atlanta, but the team would finish with only four wins on the season.
The 2000 season didn’t start out any better for Garcia and the 49ers. Following the first three games of the season they were winless with a date in Dallas up next.
Garcia was definitely not a fan favorite in San Francisco in his early days. Why would he be? He was replacing a future Hall of Fame quarterback, the team was losing and nobody knew who the heck this red-headed kid from Canada by way of Gilroy, California was. To them he was just a guy who threw the ball with a funky motion, ran around like a chicken with its head cut off, turned the ball over way too much and was dragging the organization into the NFL abyss. This led to the guys who sat behind me in Section 2 of the lower level underneath the overhand of the upper deck to routinely refer to Garcia as “Pop Warner.”
After his first sixteen games in the NFL, Garcia had a record of 2-11 as a starter and 19 total touchdowns along with 18 turnovers. Heading into Week 4 of 2000 in Dallas, Garcia was nowhere near what he would eventually become.
If this story and those numbers seem familiar, they should. The 49ers find themselves in a similar situation in 2020, only the names have changed.
Just like Garcia, Mullens would go undrafted after a decorated college career that would see him break a number of Brett Favre’s records at Southern Mississippi. Following the draft, it was 49ers quarterbacks’coach Rich Scangerello who needed to plead the case to Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch for why the 49ers should sign Mullens even though they had just traded up in the third round of the draft to select C.J. Beathard. Mullens first season in San Francisco was spent running the scout team for the defense and even playing some safety on the scout team for the 49ers offense during practices.
In 2018, Jimmy Garoppolo would go down for the season with a knee injury in Week 3. After losing the next five games with C.J. Beathard at quarterback, the former practice squad safety would be named the starting quarterback for the next game against the Oakland Raiders. Just like Garcia did back in 1999, Mullens would make a splash in his first start, leading the 49ers to a blow out 34-3 victory. And like Garcia, the success would be short lived as the 49ers would lose their next three games. In total, the 49ers would finish 2018 with a 3-5 record with Mullens as their starter.
Heading into 2019, there were concerns with Garoppolo on two fronts: would his knee be able to hold up and would he be the guy to lead them moving forward. There was one report which mentioned that the 49ers would have a short leash with Garoppolo if he struggled. As part of the report, it was said that, “Nick Mullens is Kyle Shanahan’s type of quarterback. He is almost a savant when it comes to understanding the offense. He really executes it in a way that Kyle Shanahan likes.” Most people blew this off as simple speculation. And as the team rolled to a 13-3 record this report would vanish from the memories of the 49ers Faithful.
In 2020, Mullens has been thrust into the staring role for the second time in his career as the result of injury to fan favorite Garoppolo. As the losses have mounted, the reactions to Mullens from many 49ers fans and media has been similar to how they viewed Garcia in those early years. Despite throwing for 4,186 yards in his first 15 starts, trailing only Patrick Mahomes and Kurt Warner, pretty much all of them are ready to get Mullens on the next bus to Mississippi and get him out of town.
When I watch Nick Mullens, I am reminded of Jeff Garcia. Mullens is the undrafted guy who’s play is not pretty, heck it looks schizophrenic at times just like when Garcia was out there. The only real difference between the two through the first 16 games for Garcia and the first 18 games for Mullens is that Garcia was a much better scrambler than Mullens. And just like Garcia, Mullens has had a rough time with turning the ball over. Through those 18 career games, Mullens has accounted for 25 touchdowns and 23 turnovers.
You may be asking yourself, what the heck does any of this have to do with the rivalry between the Cowboys and 49ers?
While the matchup between Dallas and San Francisco on September 24, 2000 is best remembered for Terrell Owens running out to the star at midfield after two touchdown receptions, it was also an inflection point in the career of Jeff Garcia and the fortunes of the 49ers franchise.
Starting that day in Dallas, Garcia became the quarterback that 49ers fans now know. While he only threw for 178 yards on the day, Garcia would throw a total of four touchdowns and have no turnovers. In fact, Garcia, who had turned the ball over five times in the first three games of the season, would go on to turn the ball over only six times the rest of the year while leading the 49ers to a 6-7 record over the final 13 games and be named to the NFL Pro Bowl roster. In addition to the success of Garcia, the 49ers would get back to their winning ways, winning 12 games in 2001 and 10 games in 2002 with Garcia under center.
On Wednesday, despite mounting pressure from outside the organization, Kyle Shanahan announced that he would be sticking with Mullens as his quarterback for Sunday. In his comments, Shanahan was clear about what he expected from his quarterback, “Nick, first and foremost, if he wants to stay out there, he has to stop turning the ball over.”
When asked what he likes about Mullens and how this might impact Mullens’ standing with the team, Shanahan had this to say: “It’s big for him. Nick’s played some good football for us, he really has, and he’s got some numbers to back that up. Some of the positions that we’ve put him in and the plays he’s made are impressive for a backup quarterback.”
The rest of this story will be written by Mullens starting on Sunday. For Mullens and the 49ers, this could very well be another positive inflection point.