The 49ers and Raiders share a passionate Bay Area following but they are worlds apart in the development strategies for their new starting quarterbacks.
Three weeks into J.T. O’Sullivan’s stunningly excellent adventure, the San Francisco quarterback has shown remarkable toughness, ability and smarts under pressure. It is reminiscent of a 49ers legend who also spent six years holding a clipboard before getting a chance to lead the red and gold at the same age, 29. But while Steve Young thrived in a West Coast offense designed to protect the passer with short drops and quick, timing routes, Mike Martz’s more daring, spread offense puts O’Sullivan in harm’s way countless times each game.
So far, J.T. has been able to take the hits and survive 13 sacks in the team’s three games. But after Sunday’s game in New Orleans, he will face, in succession, some of the fiercest, blitz-happy defenses in the league: the New England Patriots, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants.
“Mad Mike” may have won a Super Bowl with the 1999 St. Louis Rams, but through the years, his quarterbacks have all taken a beating in his high-risk, high-reward attack. If O’Sullivan is still standing tall and steady at season’s end, he’ll be a lock to win the Len Eshmont Award for inspiration and courage, like Young did in 1992.
Meanwhile, the Raider Nation is growing restless. Not just with the prolonged drama of Lane Kiffin’s coaching status, but with play calling that has yet to give QB JaMarcus Russell a chance to shine with a game on the line.
While rookie quarterbacks Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons (2-1) and Joe Flacco of the Baltimore Ravens (2-0) have come out firing and second-year starter Trent Edwards, a former Stanford star, is throwing 31 passes a game (completing 66 percent) for the Bills (3-0), the Raiders have kept their rocket-armed passer under wraps.
Admittedly, the Silver and Black has an offensive line much better-suited for run blocking than pass protecting and a new corps of receivers that has yet to find a rhythm with their quarterback, but the only way to develop that is to do it.
In Buffalo on Sunday, Russell threw only three passes the entire second half, most notably a quick slant that Johnnie Lee Higgins turned into an 84-yard touchdown. Kiffin wisely talks of the careful nurturing of his 24-year-old NFL neophyte who has started only four games and has yet to throw an interception this season.
But the mighty San Diego Chargers come to Oakland on Sunday. San Diego is averaging 37 points a game and their quarterback, Philip Rivers, leads the league with nine touchdown passes. There is no way the Raiders can match the lightning-bolt attack without opening up it’s own aerial assault, whether it’s ready or not.
KGO (810 AM) Sports Director Rich Walcoff can be heard weekdays from 5-9 a.m. on the KGO morning news and is also the co-host of “Raiders Gameday” and “Recap” talk shows on KSFO (560 AM). He can be reached at RichWalcoff@gmail.com.