The decision on the 49ers starting quarterback could be made as early as today, offensive coordinator Mike Martz told me after the morning practice at Santa Clara on Saturday.
Martz wouldn’t say which quarterback is the likely choice, though when I asked him if there had been any surprises, he said, “J.T. O’Sullivan has shown me more than I expected.”
Don’t read too much into that. O’Sullivan had just had an excellent practice, completing two long passes to Isaac Bruce, but he had been working with the first unit. All three quarterbacks have looked better working with the first unit. The younger receivers working with the second unit don’t always run precise patterns.
O’Sullivan has been perceived to have one advantage because he is the only one of the quarterbacks to have played in Martz’s system, last year in Detroit.
“That only helps me because I know the terminology,” O’Sullivan said. “The system is always changing. I think he likes to throw in new plays just to test us.”
Martz smiled when I relayed that quote to him — and he agreed.
“I like to call something that isn’t even in the playbook to see how they react to stress,” he said.
The upcoming exhibition games will have no bearing on Martz’s decision. He hates the exhibition season and has campaigned for it to be shortened to no more than two games. “It gets in the way of your development,” he said. “We learn much more at practice.”
That’s why he thought that it might be good for him to meet with the other offensive coaches and head coach Mike Nolan after the scheduled combined workout with the Raiders in Napa on Monday to discuss who the quarterback should be.
It will be Martz’s decision. It’s been amusing to see Nolan dance around questions about when a starting quarterback will be named because he doesn’t know. Martz didn’t come here to let a head coach who knows absolutely nothing about quarterbacks tell him who should take over in his system. Martz’s only criterion will be which quarterback he thinks can run the system best. He won’t base his decision on which quarterback has the biggest contract.
It is a very precise system, much as Bill Walsh’s system was, and it’s dependent on both quarterback and receivers doing their jobs correctly.
“It’s based on trust,” said O’Sullivan. “You’re throwing to a spot, so you have to trust that the receiver will be there and he has to trust that you’ll get him the ball.”
The competing quarterbacks — Alex Smith, Shaun Hill and O’Sullivan — have differing skills, but it doesn’t matter. Any quarterback who can throw accurately, an absolute must for Martz, can fit into the system. It is also easier for quarterbacks because they don’t have to have a long shared experience with receivers to make it work.
“That doesn’t mean that all receivers are the same, though,” said O’Sullivan, who said he was thrilled at the chance to work with Bruce. “You hear stories about what a competitor he is, but you don’t really understand until you’ve played with him.”
Bruce, who has looked as good as ever in camp drills, gives the 49ers a weapon they haven’t had lately. But will it be Smith, Hill or O’Sullivan who will be throwing to him? We should know soon.