J.T. O’Sullivan knows offenses. He played in a pro-style offense at UC Davis, he’s bounced around the NFL and even NFL Europe, and he was exposed to Mike Martz’s system in Detroit last year. So what makes Martz’s system different?
“Probably the speed at which it’s played at,” O’Sullivan said after a 49ers practice this week. “The receivers’ routes are faster, the quarterback’s reads are faster. It’s all based on trust. The quarterback has to trust that the receivers will be in the right spot, and the receivers have to trust that the quarterback will get the ball to them.
“I don’t think a quarterback can ever learn the offense completely because Mike is always putting in something new. But he talks to us all the time, to let us know what he expects.”
Some observers think that O’Sullivan, who will be starting Sunday in the 49ers’ opener against Arizona, was brought in specifically by Martz to be his quarterback, because Martz knew him from Detroit. (Though other coaches and even general manager Scott McCloughan eventually weighed in, it was always going to be Martz’s choice to make.)
But my impression, when I talked to Martz before minicamps started in the spring, was that he expected Alex Smith to be the starter. Martz never seemed to think much of Shaun Hill, because he recognized that Hill’s late-season success came because opposing teams were conceding short passes, only seriously defending against the deep passes because they knew the 49ers weren’t going to score much.
The first sign that O’Sullivan was a serious contender for the starting job came when I talked to Martz before the 49ers-Raiders exhibition game. When I asked him if any of the three quarterbacks had surprised him, he said O’Sullivan had shown that he could do more than he’d expected from him.
The second sign came when the 49ers did not name a starter the next week, as Martz had said they might. Had they named one at that time, it would have been Smith. The longer competition gave O’Sullivan more of an opportunity, and he made the most of it.
In other systems, there’s a premium on quarterbacks getting to know their individual receivers. In Martz’s system, that’s not as important because the pass patterns are the most critical factor. O’Sullivan said he sometimes doesn’t even know which receiver he’s throwing to.
“It’s not my job to check to see who’s in the huddle,” he said. “It’s all based on [defensive] coverage. If I see a certain coverage, I know I have to throw the ball to a specific area. Whoever the receiver is, he has to be there.”
That makes pregame preparation even more important, because if a quarterback knows what he’s supposed to do in every situation, it becomes almost automatic. Sound familiar? That was also the basis of Bill Walsh’s system, though Martz has many more deep patterns in his offense.
Because of those deep patterns, Isaac Bruce and, possibly rookie Josh Morgan will play important roles this season. So will tight end Vernon Davis, because Martz’s offense will finally be able to create the mismatches for Davis that 49ers fans have been anticipating since he was drafted in 2006.
Martz’s offense is the biggest reason for optimism about the 49ers this season. And now, he has a quarterback who understands it.