Niners need to keep it real at quarterback

So, what do we have here? A three-man race at QB again? Oh, that's what we've had all along, Mike Nolan reminded us Thursday as erstwhile third-stringer J.T. O'Sullivan took every snap with the first-unit offense. Huh?? Didn't Nolan say at the beginning of training camp it was a two-man race at QB? Uh, yes, he did. And so adds to the confusion at a position where things aren't getting any clearer.

For a team that could use a little clarity at quarterback, the Niners just keep going in the other direction.

As O'Sullivan took the place of Shaun Hill and his tired throwing shoulder for the second day in a row in the defined Hill/Alex Smith rotation at quarterback, Nolan again opened a door he had apparently closed at the start of training camp when he said – and this is verbatim – that "it's fair to say" the team had decided to pare down the competition to a two-man race for the starting job at quarterback between Hill and Smith.

O'Sullivan did not take one single snap in 11-on-11 drills during the first five days of days of camp. But when circumstances put him in the first-team huddle for a day, Nolan found that to be a good opportunity to apparently reverse course and say O'Sullivan, indeed, still is part of the competition to be the team's quarterback of record when the 49ers open the season Sept. 7 against Arizona.

Excuse us for being a bit skeptical, but we thought this was one of the several summer issues facing the 49ers' that already had been resolved.

By the looks of things through one week, it's been difficult enough for San Francisco's top two quarterbacks to grasp the Mike Martz offensive system. Smith and Hill so far have come along slowly in the installation of the new coordinator's scheme. In fact, when asked earlier this week about the progress of those two quarterbacks, Martz said, "I think right now, it's just organized chaos, and they're just trying to learn all this stuff."

Now the Niners are going to muddle their uncertain situation at QB even further by tossing O'Sullivan – now on his eighth NFL organization having thrown a total of 26 career passes – back in the ring of contention? Doesn't that mean less time and attention for the top two contenders for the job, who each seem to need plenty of both?

Oh, excuse me, upon further review, O'Sullivan never was tossed out of that ring in the first place. Or so it is being said.

"As I've said all along, we've got three quarterbacks battling for the position," Nolan said late Thursday morning, which would be all fine and dandy and completely true, except for Nolan's reply on the first day of camp practice on July 25 when SFI asked the coach directly if it was now a two-man race for the starter's job at quarterback between Smith and Hill.

"I think it's fair to say that," Nolan said then. "Right now, from a repetition standpoint, there's no way of getting around that two guys are going to take more of the reps. And, it's probably going to stay that way for a while."

OK, so we can understand that the circumstance of Hill's tired wing presents the opportunity to give O'Sullivan some action and legitimate playing time in full-squad drills. But if it was fair to say it's a two-man race a week ago, why the backtracking to include O'Sullivan in the mix now?

It's not that we're down on O'Sullivan. Actually, the guy looked pretty smooth and in command running the offense Thursday, something we haven't seen a lot of from San Francisco quarterbacks so far this summer. O'Sullivan, who has a quick, flipping release, completed 8 of his 10 throws in 11-on-11 drills and made some pretty passes. He also had one tremendously lame duck on a long-ball attempt near the end of practice, but those things are bound to happen.

It would have been appropriate for Nolan to say that it's good to get Sullivan some snaps and the team likes what it sees in its No. 3 man. But to flip-flop on his status and add his name back to the crowded list of starting competitors? That only makes everybody go, "Huh?"

"It's good competition that's going on," Nolan said. "As we said all along, it'll be a fair battle. It'll be a competition. We're not going to play favorites. It'll be won on the field. This quarterback position is still wide open. So they're all competing for it, and that's where it's at."

So, O'Sullivan really is back in the starting mix?

"No, he's been in it all along," Nolan replied. "He's not back in it, he's been in it. We did say that it would be difficult to get repetitions for the third guy. And now that he's getting some repetitions, we're doing it in a fashion that keeps it fair."

Now what the 49ers need to do is start conducting their quarterback saga in a fashion that keeps it real.

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