We’ve learned one thing from the 49ers’ first two games: J.T. O’Sullivan is a legitimate NFL quarterback.
My media colleagues have been skeptical, even dismissive, of O’Sullivan, but on his KNBR show last Friday, I told Gary Radnich I was keeping an open mind.
I’ve seen too many quarterback surprises in the NFL, going all the way back to Johnny Unitas, to just give up on O’Sullivan. I knew he had the physical ability, and I thought he played decent in the 49ers’ opener. I wanted to see more before I came to a conclusion, and I saw that against Seattle.
Quarterback is the one position that can’t be defined by physical ability alone. There is no perfect model. Joe Montana and Dan Marino are both in the Hall of Fame, but you can’t imagine two different quarterbacks. On a lower level, I was on the sidelines before a 49ers game in the ‘90s watching Steve Stenstrom and Jeff Garcia warming up and thought that anybody who didn’t know the quarterbacks would think Stenstrom was better. He was throwing everything right on the money, while Garcia was sometimes off target. But you know who has had the better career.
The biggest factor for successful quarterbacks is decision making, but they can’t show that if they’re not on the field. Coaches will rotate players at other positions, but the No. 1 quarterback stays on the field unless he’s injured, and he also gets almost all the plays in practice. A No. 2 quarterback may never get a chance to show what he can do.
O’Sullivan has been lucky because Mike Martz is the 49ers’ offensive coordinator and he’s not afraid to play an unproven quarterback. Kurt Warner was undrafted and had played only in the Arena Leauge and NFL Europe until the Rams signed him. He took the Rams to two Super Bowls while Martz was there. Martz also made Marc Bulger, a sixth-round pick like O’Sullivan, into a good NFL quarterback.
Now, Martz says O’Sullivan may be the best quarterback he has coached.
There is a lot to like about O’Sullivan. He is obviously an accurate passer — 67 percent in his first two games — with the ability to throw deep ball — one of the four passes he completed to Isaac Bruce was a laser shot for 63 yards.
He doesn’t fold under pressure. The Seahawks put tremendous pressure on him, sacking him eight times and Seattle coach Mike Holmgren said it should have been more. It wasn’t more because O’Sullivan escaped some rushes to complete passes on broken plays or to run for yardage, 16 yards one time.
Nothing seems to faze him. Despite a Seattle crowd roaring for its team, he took the 49ers on two fourth-quarter drives. The first produced a Joe Nedney field goal to tie the game. The second ended with a shocking miss by Nedney to send the game into overtime.
Then, O’Sullivan took the Niners on another drive, and this time Nedney nailed the winning field goal.
On the OT drive, O’Sullivan faced a third-and-seven from the 49ers’ 23. No problem. He hit a 33-yard pass to Bruce, and the Niners were on their way.
O’Sullivan is good now and he should be even better as he learns more about his receivers and the system. I’m glad I kept an open mind.