EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Less than eight months ago, Jimmy Garoppolo, Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman, Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, Nick Bosa, Solomon Thomas, Dee Ford, Dre Greenlaw and Richard Sherman all played for the San Francisco 49ers when they lost to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV.
All of them remain with the team, but none of them will play tomorrow, when the 1-1 49ers face the Giants in MetLife Stadium.
The list includes the Niners' starting quarterback (Garoppolo), leading rusher (Mostert), record-setting tight end (Kittle) and the reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year (Bosa). It seems losses of such magnitude would inevitably weaken the team, but Giants coach Joe Judge believes the 49ers remain strong and dangerous.
"They have a tremendous roster," Judge said. "They have talent all over that place. They really have taken the time and built it right over the last few years since (general manager) John (Lynch) and (coach) Kyle (Shanahan) have gotten there. They've been very patient in the process and it's really paid off for them. They have a lot of really good players."
Garoppolo suffered a high ankle sprain last week against the Jets, a game in which Mostert and Coleman suffered knee injuries and Bosa and Thomas tore ACLs.
The Giants will certainly not see the full-strength 49ers. But that doesn't mean they won't see a very good Niners team.
Shanahan announced yesterday that Nick Mullens will step in for Garoppolo. It will be Mullens' first start since Dec. 30, 2018 against the Rams in Los Angeles.
Mullens was 3-5 while starting the final eight games for San Francisco in 2018, when Garoppolo missed most of the season with a torn ACL. He had a 64.2 completion percentage, 284.6 yards passing per game and 90.8 passer rating. Mullens threw 13 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions.
His second start was on a Monday night against the Giants in Levi's Stadium. Mullens completed 27 of 39 passes for 250 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. The Giants scored a late touchdown to win, 27-23.
Last year, Mullens played only seven snaps, or 512 less than he had the previous year. When he took over for Garoppolo last Sunday, Mullens hadn't thrown a regular-season pass since his final start in 2018. He completed seven of 11 passes for 71 yards.
The Giants certainly aren't taking him lightly.
"He's definitely a really great competitor," Judge said. "He gets the ball out of his hands fast. This guy was good for them in the past already. Obviously, he's more experienced within their system, whatever the individual plan is going to be for him within Kyle's game plan for the team. But this guy is a competitor. He's a tough dude, he's a hardnosed guy. He's one of those Southern Miss guys. Those guys don't have a lot of quit in them, so you know you're in for a tough game with him. "
"This is the National Football League. Backups aren't bad players," safety Julian Love said. "Mullens is a talented quarterback who has some really nice traits about him. We have to really dial in because this is a guy with limited tape this past season. You know he has it. You might not have been able to see it that much, but he's a guy who can really throw the ball. We're locked in just like we're playing number 10 (Garoppolo) out there. That's kind of our mindset with it. He's a quarterback in the National Football League, so he has talent. That's how we're prepping."
San Francisco's starting running back is expected to be Jerick McKinnon, who missed the 2018-19 seasons with a knee injury but has rushed for 101 yards and a touchdown and has a 55-yard run to his credit this season.
"We've known about this guy in the league for a long time and he hasn't really missed a step," Judge said. "This guy can definitely find the seam and get vertical. He has good burst, great instincts. He runs tough, he's a tough guy to tackle in open space. He showed that last week with a couple of explosive runs. He's definitely a guy we have to do a good job of keeping in front of us and getting him on the ground. But he's a very good back and a very good returner."
Kittle had 173 receptions in the previous two seasons and in 2018, he set the NFL record for most receiving yards for a tight end with 1,377 yards. Jordan Reed, who is No. 2 on the Niners' depth chart, has 338 career receptions and 38 touchdowns.
"I think everybody knows what a talent (Kittle) is," Love said. "Obviously, we want to see everybody's best shot, so it's unfortunate he's not playing. But he's a guy who's one of the best in the league at what he does. He's a guy that gives full effort, does well in each phase of the game for offense, and that's a guy who they count on. That's definitely a loss."
On the defensive front, the 49ers will miss Bosa, Ford and Solomon, who combined for 17.5 sacks last season. This week, they signed two first-round selections from the 2013 NFL Draft – Dion Jordan off their practice squad and free agent Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah, who was a Pro Bowler in 2015 and 2017.
The Giants know they can't get caught up in who the 49ers are missing and must concentrate instead on the talent they will bring to MetLife and what they must do to secure their first victory of the season.
"We have to focus on the traits and the opportunities how to win," Love said. "That's what we're going to do each week. We can't dwell on anything. We have to keep building. That's our goal, for each day, each week, each game, just build. We're excited for this opportunity with San Francisco coming up, and we're going to try to take full advantage."
View rare photos of the history between the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers.
*The Giants and 49ers have split their last four games dating back to 2014, with each team winning once at home and once on the road. They last faced each other on Monday night, Nov. 12, 2018 in Santa Clara, where Eli Manning's three-yard touchdown pass to Sterling Shepard with 53 seconds remaining in the game capped a 75-yard drive and gave the Giants a 27-23 victory. The touchdown pass was the 350th of Manning's career. The 49ers beat the Giants the previous season in Levi's Stadium. The teams split two games in MetLife in 2014 and 2015. How close is this rivalry? The Giants lead in the regular-season series, 17-16 and the postseason series is tied, 4-4. In those 41 games, they are separated by only five points (Giants 843, 49ers 838).
*The week before he last played the Giants, Mullens – in his first NFL start, on Nov. 1, 2018 vs. Oakland - completed 16 of 22 passes for 262 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. He became just the third quarterback since 1950 with at least have 250 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in their NFL debut. The others are Hall of Famers Fran Tarkenton (1961) and Jim Kelly (1986). Mullens faced the Giants the following week.