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In the waning days of July and into the dawning hours of August, San Francisco 49er journeyman quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan assumed a competitive position with 2005 first round draft pick Alex Smith and a journeyman of sorts himself, Shaun Hill. Hill was recently signed to provide an interesting contest between Smith and himself.
As the official training camp in Santa Clara commenced so did the understanding at that time prove to be that this was a two-man competition, between Hill and Alex Smith? But as the drama unfolded with Shaun Hill and Alex Smith taking turns to rest their weary throwing arms, it provided a loophole for J.T. O'Sullivan to exploit and he did that with his keen sense of familiarity of Mike Martz's playbook almost to the letter.
His extended time with Mike Martz back with the Detroit Lions and backing up starting quarterback Jon Kitna, proved to be the Achilles heel to both Shaun Hill and Alex Smith. His command of the huddle, direction and accountability of the offense on the practice field won him to start the first pre-season game against the Oakland Raiders shortly after being successful during a scrimmage that both the 49ers and the Raiders had within Oakland's training camp back in the Napa Valley.
His debut in Oakland was anything but sweet. He completed five of eight passes for 71 total yards with one interception The interception popped every 49er fans collective bubble of hope as it was a poorly thrown ball Shortly after that in the second quarter he dropped back to throw and found no open receivers so he took off with the ball only to have it stripped away and losing possession on the fumble. His movement of the ball however was impressive enough to warrant a second look from Mike Nolan.
Although discouraged and disgusted with himself, J.T. O'Sullivan came away as an athlete chastising himself on the sideline, showing emotion and a desire to rectify his mistakes. When Alex Smith commits a tragic error, little to no emotion is displayed leading one to believe that his heart and mind are in question and his integrity is then in suspect.
J.T. O'Sullivan's passes to rookie wide receiver Josh Morgan were the greatest highlights of that first pre-season game where he had four passes for 68 total yards. Alex Smith played well going five for nine with 51 total yards but his throws again were not on mark and he was unable to punch the ball in at the Oakland Raider four-yard line. We went on to lose that game 18-6 and questions abounded again that clearly no one was quite ready yet to assume the starting position.
Training Camp at Santa Clara had J.T. O'Sullivan practicing with the first team right before the first pre-season game against the Oakland Raiders. Mike Nolan turned into an avid politician of sorts with always giving the politically right statement to what the 49er quarterback competition was all about. Despite his setback in his first pre-season game O'Sullivan had shown Nolan just enough to register a glimmer of optimism about his next starting quarterback.
Soon after the first pre-season game it became crystal clear that Shaun Hill would not be a litigating factor in the race to become the next starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. He would fight merely for a roster spot in being the third-string quarterback yet again on a team that had given him the opportunity of a lifetime to suddenly seize.
Alex Smith soon came into realization that as he played second team leader in practices that his bid on the starting position was hanging merely by a thread. The only way to secure a rope to pull him out of the second-team status quo was to perform at a very high level in the remaining pre-season contests from Week Two to Week Three.
What a lot of people are saying now is that Mike Martz's playbook as detailed and extensive as it is, was a mountain of specifics and scenarios that could tongue-tie just about anybody. Alex and his known intelligent IQ met this challenge with very mixed results. Playing under his fourth offensive coordinator Alex knew that this was the pivotal training camp where excuses were not even in the fine print after being picked up by the 49ers as an extension of his contract.
As the Green Bay Packers arrived in Candlestick Park with their brand new quarterback in Aaron Rodgers the former California football star passed over by the 49ers for Alex Smith in the 2005 NFL Draft, all eyes were on J.T. O'Sullivan and Alex Smith to further define who was where on the depth chart at the quarterback position.
In the first quarter of play J.T. O'Sullivan threw his second interception of the pre-season from the 49er 13-yard line which set up a Packer field goal to make it 3-0. However a completely focused J.T. O'Sullivan emerged in the second quarter in a bid to redeem his mistake by orchestrating a drive from the 49er 13-yard line that went 87 total yards on 15 plays that lasted well over nine minutes with pin-point accurate passes to wide receivers Josh Morgan and Jason Hill and running back Deshaun Foster breaking it in for a touchdown from the 1-yard line.
Still not done within the quarter he took the offense from the 28-yard line down to the 41 yard line where he threw a bomb of 59-yards to wide receiver Josh Morgan for a touchdown to make the score 14-3 49ers. J.T. O'Sullivan went 8-for-17 for 154 total yards with one interception and one touchdown and a quarterback rating of 74.1.
The second half found Alex Smith struggling yet again with decisions involving timing, route recognition and pressure. He went 5-of-12 for 62 total yards and zero touchdowns but the 49ers defeated the Packers 34-6 with a total of six sacks, 355 total yards of offense and over four minutes more in time of possession. So the table was set for J.T. O'Sullivan to secure his status as the first-team quarterback with Mike Nolan playing the devil's advocate for the competition to continue.
As you look back on J.T. O'Sullivan's collegiate career and his back-up spots along his many journeys in the NFL, One has to think that this maybe the next great underdog in professional sports that emerges as a future Pro Bowler or even better the next elite quarterback of the new San Francisco 49er era. He reminds me with similarities to Jeff Garcia and he has a fanatical way of trying to make plays out of impossible situations as they seem to almost detonate, some with success others with catastrophic results.
However when you look at this guy behind the line of scrimmage and the way he takes command with such an air of complete self-confidence you know that he is going to battle on each and every play as if it's his last. He shows emotion and he demands accountability from his peers around him. Although far from perfect he is the star pupil or the next great Kurt Warner and or Marc Bulger in the making under offensive coordinator Mike Martz.
To acknowledge that Alex Smith is a bust as of now is preemptive right now. He definitely is someone that the team has been built around to enhance his success. Success has proven to be a traitor to him. His ability to navigate from a run and shoot offense he played extensively at the University of Utah to handling snaps under center and dropping back effectively in a four to five step-drop has been suffocating for him and his offense. His sense of timing and being accurate on each and every one of his throws has been politely inconsistent. His struggles have been well documented in the terms of losses we have ensued with him under center.
Despite the injuries and the offensive philosophical changes with a different coordinator every season, he was expected to rise above all that and become someone so pleasant that we had to never look back. Now it looks as if the ownership and management of this franchise has made yet another catastrophic quarterback decision that rivals that of Giovanni Carmazzi and Jim Druckenmiller.
Aaron Rodgers was available to the San Francisco 49ers when the 2005 NFL Draft came around. He will get the opportunity of a lifetime to become a legitimate starting quarterback in the NFL for the first time. Should he have even minimal success it will be enough to surpass Alex Smith's rookie year by a mile or so. In the beginning I felt that he was the best option for the 49ers having familiarity with the West Coast Offense and being comfortable with taking the snaps from under center. Certainly a higher IQ isn't everything?
In the third pre-season game the 49ers traveled to Chicago to take on the Bears following a devastating tampering charge that cost them dearly over linebacker Lance Briggs. J.T. O'Sullivan again was the starting quarterback and he looked utterly invincible within the first quarter moving the offense down twice to allow Joe Nedney to net two field goals to make it 10-6 Bears.
In the second quarter he drove the 49er offense down the field to the Bears 37-yard line where he hooked up with wide receiver Jason Hill for a touchdown to make it 13-10 49ers. Following a fumble in which the 49es recovered, on the next drive starting from the Chicago 16-yard line J.T. O'Sullivan helped navigate the 49ers for another touchdown in which Moran Norris crashed into the end zone to make it 20-10 49ers. In the end we flew home vindicated after defeating the Bears 37-30 following some real special team mishaps.
In all we carved up 425 total yards in offense with 160 of it just on the ground. The offense maintained time of possession and dictated the game with meaningful plays despite the eroding play of the special teams. J.T. O'Sullivan completed 7-of-8 passes for 126 total yards and one touchdown for a quarterback rating of 158.3. Alex Smith completed 6-of-17 for 83 total yards and one touchdown.
Overwhelming evidence was in abundance as decisions were made on the front lines and behind the scenes within this pivotal game. O'Sullivan's seething self-confidence helped us defeat the bullies of Chicago. The ball was distributed evenly and favorably as he orchestrated the 49er offense both on and off the field. This is a man on a mission who takes the good the bad and the ugly and rolls all three up in a tortilla and makes a burrito out of them.
Having him named the official starter was a God send in my opinion. Alex Smith is clearly no where ready to assume command of this offense. Mike Martz has yet another opportunity to make something incredible out of this young man that stands within the confounds of Candlestick Park where maybe just a touch of glory will show its collective face amid true success out on the field and off from it.
Both Mike Nolan and Scot McCloughan have eaten humble pie on this situation it seems. They still have the same vision though for this franchise and naming J.T. O'Sullivan makes clear sense of where we should start that motivation towards greatness again. Although the season is scrutinized to some as being too long, I for one can say I have not been bored yet at all when watching J.T. O'Sullivan play up to form. The 2008 NFL season just became a bit more exhilarating with a relatively unknown leader in hiding.
Sources of Information: Mercury News.com, SF Gate.com, Inside Bay Area.com, NFL.com and my own personal analysis and opinion.