J.T. O’Sullivan’s rise to the role of starting quarterback for the 49ers again raises the question: Why do NFL teams have so much trouble evaluating quarterbacks?
O’Sullivan was a sixth-round draft pick, as was Tom Brady, usually considered the best quarterback in the game. But Brady got his chance early, and O’Sullivan has bounced around the league, playing so little that he only qualifies for the NFL minimum salary of $645,000 this season.
Meanwhile, the 49ers had Alex Smith, who was the first overall pick in the 2005 draft and is now the highest-paid backup in the league. Many have suggested that Smith should be traded, but that’s unlikely because he’s signed through next season. Why would another team take on that salary?
Nor is he the biggest bust ever. Not even close. Few predicted great success for Smith when he came out, but when Ryan Leaf was drafted 10 years ago, many of the “experts” thought he was going to be a great quarterback. Some thought he should be the No. 1 pick ahead of Peyton Manning. Leaf was a disaster; Smith only a disappointment.
Smith illustrates one of the problems NFL scouts and coaches have in evaluating quarterbacks: the rise of the spread formations in college. Smith’s only two collegiate years were spent in a spread offense, and he is still somewhat uncomfortable in a pro offense.
O’Sullivan has had no such problem because he played in a pro-type offense at UC Davis. But he was also playing in a lower-ranked league. This is the first time he’s had a legitimate shot at being an NFL starter, and he’s made the most of it.
He’s in the right place because offensive coordinator Mike Martz has had great success with unheralded quarterbacks. As coordinator for the St. Louis Rams, he developed Kurt Warner into a Super Bowl-winning quarterback; Warner had not been drafted, so he had been playing in the now disbanded developmental league, NFL Europe. Martz also had success with Marc Bulger, who had been a sixth-round pick.
At other positions, players can look good as reserves and be promoted to starters, but it’s very difficult for a quarterback to do that because, usually, only one can play. Even in college, coaches don’t usually like a two-quarterback system. When you see an NFL team with rotating quarterbacks — like last year’s Raiders — it means neither is very good.
Unless a quarterback with little previous reputation is lucky enough to play for a coach like Martz, who looks at what he has, not the reputation, he’s likely to be typecast early and never have a real chance. Obviously, that happened to O’Sullivan.
The other evaluation problem is that so many coaches and scouts look strictly at physical ability, though the ability to make good decisions is the primary attribute for successful quarterbacks. Many of us who were around at the time think that Joe Montana would have been cut in training camp if he’d been drafted by a team looking for a quarterback with a cannon arm. Instead, he played for Bill Walsh and became the best quarterback of his generation.
O’Sullivan is not the second coming of Montana, but he has the physical skills and, more importantly, the intelligence to make the right decisions which should make him a successful quarterback. I wish him well.