Major news hit the 49ers’ quarterback unit Tuesday, two days after the defending NFC champions were eliminated from playoff contention.
— Nick Mullens, who went 2-6 as a fill-in starter this season, is facing Tommy John surgery to repair an elbow injury he sustained in Sunday’s loss at Dallas.
— Jimmy Garoppolo is cleared to resume practicing but coach Kyle Shanahan does not plan to play him the remaining two games.
— C.J. Beathard will start Saturday against the host Arizona Cardinals, two years after his last start came against them at State Farm Stadium.
— Josh Johnson, a veteran safeguard on the practice squad, went on the NFL’s COVID-19 reserve list Monday.
— Beathard’s backup Saturday will likely be a quarterback the 49ers sign off another team’s practice squad.
— Running back Jerick McKinnon and fullback Kyle Juszczyk are options as emergency quarterbacks.
Garoppolo has been sidelined since Nov. 1, when a high ankle sprain forced him out of the 49ers’ loss at Seattle. Taking part in Tuesday’s walk-through practice does not mean he’ll play again this season.
“That’s only if the doctors tell me if it’s 100 percent safe. I’d be very surprised if that happens,” Shanahan said. “It’ll be fun for him to throw the ball around (Wednesday). We’ll be very safe with him.”
Garoppolo’s same right ankle was injured in the 49ers’ Week 2 win over the New York Jets, and it kept Garoppolo out the next two games, plus it forced him to sit at halftime of a Week 5 return against the Miami Dolphins. He’s officially 3-3 as a starter this season with 1,096 yards, seven touchdowns and five interceptions.
Mullens went 2-6 as a starter in place of Garoppolo this season. He’s committed 16 turnovers this season, including five in the past two losses that knocked the 49ers out of the playoff race.
The 49ers medical staff feared Mullens’ sustained ligament damage last game, and they’ll wait until swelling subsides before “most likely” going through with reconstructive surgery that could keep him out a year. Mullens is a restricted free agent.
Mullens injured his elbow and lost sensation in it during the waning minutes of Sunday’s 41-33 loss. “I was throwing the football, they hit my hand and I jammed my elbow a little bit,” Mullens said afterward. “So I figured it was best for the team for somebody who could throw the football to get in the game.”
Once Beathard replaced Mullen on Sunday, he engineered a field-goal drive and then finished the game with a Hail Mary touchdown pass to Kendrick Bourne.
Beathard’s return to the starting role comes a year after his youngest brother, Clayton, was fatally stabbed in a fight outside a Nashville bar, on the early morning of Dec. 21, 2019.
“It’s hard to believe it’s already been a year since our world was rocked,” C.J. Beathard said in an Instagram post Monday. “Losing a brother and a best friend is not easy, nor will it ever be, and not a day goes by that I don’t think about Clay and his laugh. It’s a daily battle even a year later.”
“I know that’s heavy on his heart and will be the rest of his life,” Shanahan said. “I know he’s very religious and is close with God and close with his family and is dealing with it that way.
“I know it’s been a huge challenge for him. I’m excited he’ll get an opportunity this week,” added Shanahan, noting that Mullens had outperformed Beathard on the field in games, in training camp and in practice but that not by a sizable margin.
Beathard is the only quarterback drafted by the 49ers (third round, 2017) under Shanahan and general manager John Lynch.
He is just 1-9 as a starter (1-4 in 2017, 0-5 in ’18). He has produced points in 5-of-8 drives this season when summoned in relief, excluding a one-play cameo at New Orleans.
Veteran Josh Johnson was signed to the practice squad last month for precisely this emergency duty. But he got placed on the NFL’s COVID-19 reserve list Tuesday with wide receiver Kevin White, who has spent all season on the practice squad but got called up for sparse action in three early-season games.
The NFL’s COVID-19 protocol limits the availability to bring in a free agent off the street with less than a week before a game, so the 49ers likely will sign a quarterback off another team’s practice squad. If that fails, they will turn to Jerick McKinnon or Kyle Juszczyk as emergency quarterbacks, roles they’ve rehearsed after Friday practices with quarterbacks coach Shayne Day.
McKinnon was an option quarterback in college at Georgia Southern and had overtaken Juszczyk for the emergency-QB role earlier this season, Shanahan said last month. Juszczyk joked that he’d love to go in for a play if Beathard needs to tie his shoes, but otherwise noted he’s prepared for a larger role, if needed.