O'Sullivan shedding no tears for competitors

Michael Silver
Yahoo! Sports

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – The San Francisco 49ers' new starting quarterback won the job under circumstances some people in the team's locker room considered shady, going from perceived afterthought to clear frontrunner before either of his competitors knew what had hit them. But forgive J.T. O'Sullivan if he's having a hard time summoning the requisite sympathy for former No. 1 overall draft pick Alex Smith or 2007's December surprise, Shaun Hill, each of whom spent August getting iced by new Niners offensive coordinator Mike Martz.

For one thing, O'Sullivan has enough going for him – arm strength, accuracy and a propensity for making good decisions, among other attributes – to harbor legitimate hopes of joining previous Martz protégés Kurt Warner and Marc Bulger as an unlikely star in a pass-happy system.

He's also been fired more times than the casts of "The Apprentice."

"I've been on the other side of the rep situation," O'Sullivan said earlier this week at the 49ers' training facility, where he was preparing for Friday night's preseason finale against the Chargers at Candlestick Park. "Trust me, I know what it's like when you don't get a lot of chances to compete. Obviously, it's not good when people stop correcting your mistakes or paying any attention to you. Obviously, it's no fun getting fired."

Few NFL quarterbacks of this era have become as familiar with the "Coach Wants To See You, And Bring Your Playbook" speech as O'Sullivan, who has been released by six teams and traded by another. When this guy gets sacked, the ramifications are far worse than third-and-long.

"It's not very pleasant," O'Sullivan said. "You get fired, and it's in the news and everyone knows about it. You make mental notes, thinking, 'If I'm ever a coach I might not handle things like this.' "

Since being selected in the sixth round of the 2002 draft by the Saints, the former UC Davis passer had been the quintessential journeyman – until a few weeks ago, when he vaulted past two players in whom the 49ers had made significant financial investments.

Suddenly, Smith – five months after having received an $8 million option payment built into his lucrative rookie contract – began seeing minimal time with the first team. Sources say Smith felt targeted by Martz, who frequently made disparaging comments under his breath as the former starter approached him to get play calls in training-camp practices.

Mysteriously, Hill – given a $1.95 million signing bonus as part of a three-year deal in February (after having led San Francisco to a pair of season-ending victories in '07) – was held out of several key practices with what his coaches described as a fatigued arm. Hill, who insisted his arm felt fine, wasn't especially thrilled. A source said Hill was upset enough to vent his feelings in a meeting with head coach Mike Nolan, angrily charging that the competition had been a sham.

Nolan, in a recent interview, conceded that the situation played out in a way that might have appeared strange to outsiders. At the end of a minicamp last May, Nolan made a point of saying that O'Sullivan – signed in February after a season with the Lions, for whom Martz was the offensive coordinator in '07 – would join Smith and Hill in battling for the starting job. As the preseason progressed, however, O'Sullivan saw his repetitions in organized team activities and other workouts reduced.

Asked at the start of training camp if the QB competition was now a two-man race between Hill and Smith, Nolan answered, "I think it's fair to say that." A week later, Nolan told reporters, "As I've said all along, we've got three quarterbacks battling for the position. All right? Three guys."

Questioned earlier this week about the inconsistencies, Nolan smiled and said, "I tried twice to get (O'Sullivan) out of the way, didn't I?"

The reality is that O'Sullivan, who signed a one-year deal for $645,000 (including a $40,000 signing bonus), had a distinct edge in the competition by virtue of his familiarity with Martz's intricate system. Thrust into action in the second week of the '07 season after an injury to Lions starter Jon Kitna, O'Sullivan came off the bench to throw the first 24 passes of his NFL career in a 20-17 overtime victory over the Vikings, one of his many former employers, and he learned at an accelerated pace as the year progressed.


Martz has a discussion with O'Sullivan during preseason action against the Packers.

(Getty Images/Greg Trott)

Fired by the Lions after the '07 campaign Martz – the former Rams coach and renowned offensive strategist – pushed for the team to sign O'Sullivan as a free agent after getting the Niners job. Nolan said he was also influenced by the recommendation of former San Francisco coordinator Mike McCarthy, now the Packers' head coach, whom he said "was trying to get us to sign J.T." in the spring of '05.

Three years later, O'Sullivan joined the Niners and was told he'd have a chance to compete for the starting job. Martz threw the full force of his playbook at Smith and Hill, and the two incumbents predictably struggled. With Nolan having essentially ceded decision-making power to Martz, who declined to be interviewed for this column, there was only one man to impress. Once O'Sullivan's opportunity arrived, he seized it.

"I was the new guy in Detroit last year, and I understand how Coach Martz will sometimes coach all of his quarterbacks through one player," O'Sullivan says. (Translation: Martz picks one backup passer – Hill, in this case – to be the object of his voluble scorn.) "I've been there. But I really believe that Coach Martz, if he thinks you're giving everything you've got and learning in the process, he'll give you the keys to success. I just want to be in that position."

O'Sullivan may have the keys, but he is far from comfortable in the driver's seat. He has started each of the team's preseason games, beginning with an uneven performance at Oakland in which he lost a fumble near midfield and threw an interception near the Raiders' goal line in an 18-6 defeat. He threw another interception and was 8-for-17 in a 34-6 home defeat of the Packers, though he also connected with wideout Josh Morgan on a 59-yard touchdown pass. He clinched the starting job with a 7-for-8, 126-yard, one-TD performance in a 37-30 victory over the Bears in Chicago.

There was no joyous locker room celebration. O'Sullivan has been regarded as somewhat standoffish by many of his new teammates, though they'll undoubtedly warm to him if he enjoys similar success in the regular season. He's also considered prickly by the reporters who cover the team, adopting a habit of repeating their questions in an effort to reframe the conversation.

To Nolan, who is likely coaching for his job in '08, none of this is a bad thing.

"I like his manner," Nolan says. "Maybe manner's not the most sexy word … I like his disposition. If you ask a bad question, I want my quarterback to say, 'What the hell is that?'

"Even more important is his self-confidence. He's had, what, eight coordinators in seven years? With what he's been through, the first thing I think about is resiliency. That's huge with a quarterback. Think about the downs he's been through. It's not like he left all those teams on a high. He probably left thinking, 'What am I gonna do with my life?' "

Now, for the first time since his days with the then-Division II UC Davis Aggies, O'Sullivan has his destiny in his own hands. Still a season-ticket holder, O'Sullivan is looking forward to cheering on his old school Saturday evening when UC Davis – about 100 miles northeast of the Niners' training facility – visits San Jose State to start its '08 season.

Harkening back to his college days, O'Sullivan recalls, "I loved it when we'd play a school from a more prominent conference. You had a bunch of guys who thought, 'I'm pretty sure I was good enough to play at this school, but they didn't want me.' You get a whole group like that, all of us with chips on our shoulders, and it's pretty powerful."

Eight employers later, does O'Sullivan still carry that chip?

"Oh," he said, "the chips have turned to boulders … to mountains."

Suffice it to say, he's ready to rock.


The 2008 Patriots will not go undefeated – in the first quarter of the season. … Though he plays in a conference that includes Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer, Philip Rivers, David Garrard, Derek Anderson, Ben Roethlisberger and Brett Favre, the Broncos' Jay Cutler will make the Pro Bowl this season. … Michael Strahan will be very happy with his decision not to end his retirement as the '08 season plays out, especially when he earns rave reviews as a FOX studio analyst.


1. After Fidel Castro defended the Cuban taekwondo Olympian who kicked a referee in the face, the ghost of Che Guevara dismissed Angel Matos as "un cobarde" and called Castro, his former revolutionary comrade, "una verguenza."

2. Stung by the new regulation requiring players to pass an oral evaluation of English skills, Emmitt Smith abandoned plans to join the LPGA Tour.

3. Carson Palmer will host a regular postgame tailgate this season for upper-deck ticket-holders at Paul Brown Stadium, because he now feels a "special connection" with the fans who sit in the nosebleeds."


Now we know why Shawne Merriman is nicknamed "Lights Out." If he really thinks that playing the 2008 season with two torn knee ligaments – against the advice of several respected doctors – is a good idea, the bulb in his brain has clearly been flipped off.


Newborn Serena Elliott, who'll surely be responsible for some bags under the eyes of SportsCenter anchor Josh Elliott (and those of his rock-starlet wife Priya). I'm also tossing a couple back for USA Basketball after last weekend's stirring victory over Spain for the Olympic gold. I'm not one of those people who blindly roots for every U.S. athlete or team in international competition, but it was tough not to get fired up as Kobe, LeBron, J-Kidd, D-Wade and the fellas displayed the unbridled emotion of high schoolers while stepping up to the immense Spanish challenge. All in all, this was my favorite international hoops moment since the '76 U.S. team avenged that atrocity of an ending to the gold medal game four years earlier by winning it all in Montreal. Finally, in the wake of Thursday night's end zone spike at Invesco Field, I'll be downing the first of many hearty shots to a Democratic presidential candidate with swagger, attitude and a willingness not to play it safe in the pursuit of excellence. (Imagine that.)

As a member of the U.S. under-20 national soccer team, sophomore forward Alex Morgan had every reason to redshirt this season. But though she'll miss some key games due to national-team commitments, Morgan is playing on, recording a goal and two assists in the 15th--ranked Bears' season-opening 3-1 victory over San Jose State. Cal continues play this weekend in its invitational tournament against Cal State Fullerton and St. Joseph's. Sandwiched in between those games, on Saturday, will be a little football showdown between the Golden Bears and Charles Robinson's Michigan State Spartans. This is one case in which, even in Berkeley, "Go Green" will not be a welcome term.


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In case some of you missed the dramatic news in June, I decided to stick with the Reading Football Club as my adopted English team despite its relegation from the Premier League after the '07-08 season. So here's the update: Three games into their return to the Football League Championship division, the Royals have had mixed results – an opening nil-nil draw at Nottingham Forest; a 2-0 home triumph over Plymouth; and a 4-2 defeat at Charlton – and sit in 12th place in the 24-team league with four points. They've also advanced to the third round of the Carling Cup with victories over lower-division foes Dagenham and Redbridge and Luton Town. Gone via transfer to Premier League clubs are two key players from last year's squad: carrot-topped forward Dave Kitson (Stoke City, 5.5 million pounds) and steady defender Nicky Shorey (Aston Villa, 3 million pounds), who had been with Reading for 7½ years and was the team's second-longest tenured player. Manager Steve Coppell has picked up a couple of young reinforcements and remains optimistic heading into Saturday's home match with Crystal Palace at Madejski Stadium. Don't ask me who's doing what in the Premier League, because I'm all about the FLC until the Royals get back up.


As Merriman ignored the advice of doctors and friends and listened to that curious voice in his head telling him to risk his career by playing in '08, I wonder if he also heard Chargers general manager A.J. Smith assuring him all would be well, to the tune of "Drive" by Incubus:

Sometimes, you feel the fear of uncertainty stinging clear
And you can't help but ask yourself how much you let the fear
Take the wheel and steer
It drove LaDainian
But it didn't drive Rivers, not in Foxborough
And in '09, come contract time, will I
Make sure you're taken care of though?

Whatever tomorrow brings, I'll be there
With open arms and open wallet
Whatever tomorrow brings, I'll be there
I'll be there

So if I decide to waive you injured, sacrifice aside
Will I choose business over honor – career homicide?
I've cast them out before
Just ask Steve Foley today how easily he gets around
The NFLPA I'm so sorry to say will
Turn your disability claim down

Whatever tomorrow brings, I'll be there
With open arms and open wallet
Whatever tomorrow brings, I'll be there
Sure I will

Would you lose the millions we won't pay?
Grab your cleats and play

Whatever tomorrow brings, I'll be there
With open arms and open wallet

Whatever tomorrow brings, I'll be there
Just trust me

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