O'Sullivan kept faith during starting search

Before his first practice as the official starting quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers last week, SFI asked J.T. O'Sullivan if he could talk about what a long, strange journey it has been to finally arrive at that much sought-after destination. "I mean, what part?" the usually stoic O'Sullivan replied with a hint of a grin. "You know, that's a serious conversation." And so it is.

It's a conversation that would cover the better part of seven years and spread over two continents and eight NFL organizations since O'Sullivan's professional career began when he was drafted in the sixth round by the New Orleans Saints in 2002.

Not a lot of quarterbacks ever have been through the labyrinthine process O'Sullivan has endured to finally ascend to starting status at the most important position in the game. But O'Sullivan's faith never wavered during his long, strange journey to the top of San Francisco's depth chart.

And now, when Sept. 7 finally rolls around, and the 49ers open the season at home against the Arizona Cardinals, O'Sullivan finally will have reached the summit of that laborious climb.

After wearing the colors of the Saints, Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings, New England Patriots, Carolina Panthers and Detroit Lions, O'Sullivan – who turned 29 on Monday – will make the first regular-season start of his career wearing the red-and-gold of the 49ers.

It represents a coming full circle for O'Sullivan, who cheered on the 49ers as a youngster growing up in Sacramento, where he was a star quarterback for one of the local prep powerhouses before taking his game to nearby UC-Davis. He enjoyed an All-American career at the Division II college, where he was a three-year starter and set numerous school records for passing and total offense.

It also was there O'Sullivan caught the eyes of NFL scouts and personnel types who recognized his potential despite the lower level of competition at which he was playing.

Those scouts and personnel types have been looking at O'Sullivan in a multitude of different ways ever since. How else to explain how he could bounce around from team to team - spending time on practice squads, spending the spring of 2007 in NFL Europa - without somebody recognizing his potential as a starter or giving him an opportunity in the role?

"I always thought I could play," O'Sullivan said. "That didn't waver when one GM or one personnel guy or one coach told me that I wasn't good enough for that team. It was like, 'Alright, that's your opinion.'"

And then O'Sullivan would pack his well-worn bags and move on, looking for the next opportunity to do better. There always seemed to be another opportunity waiting.

During one particularly eventful stretch, O'Sullivan spent time on the rosters of four different NFL teams during a 366-day span.

"The longer I went along, the more I focused and realized it was about me playing well," O'Sullivan said. "If I were able to put everything aside and just control the things that I could control - my performance, my preparation - I think that I would have been more happy with the journey."

But O'Sullivan took each rejection personally, and a chip began to build on his shoulder. But he didn't lose confidence in himself. And he didn't give up on himself or give himself a ceiling, a time limit for making it the NFL.

He looked at the careers of other quarterbacks who took different paths to starting positions, quarterbacks who also had to make several stops along the way. It didn't necessarily make it easier, but it did offer some perspective.

"There were different circumstances in each of the places, but I flat out didn't agree with their decisions, so that's why I'm playing today," O'Sullivan said. "Obviously, when things don't go well, when you're sitting at home and you have no other choice, you look at other people's paths to play in this league in this position. And there's not a whole lot of smooth stories, there just isn't.

"Once you realize that this is your story, at some point you have to take this on yourself to realize that you're not going to be given an opportunity or nobody is going to hand you an opportunity to play, you're going to have to claw and scratch just to stay in the league. You're going to have to do everything you can to have the opportunity to make a team, and once you get that opportunity to make a team, to show them that you can play."

O'Sullivan kept scratching and clawing. And, finally, the opportunity came.

After being waived by Chicago in July of last year, O'Sullivan signed with the Detroit Lions, where Mike Martz was in his second season as offensive coordinator.

O'Sullivan's quick release and pinpoint passes were a perfect fit for the detailed Martz system, and he also showed that he had the wherewithal and smarts necessary to run the offense. To the resistance of some in the Detroit organization who were not enthused with O'Sullivan's pedigree, O'Sullivan was elevated to backup status behind starter Jon Kitna during his first season with the team.

O'Sullivan played in four games for the Lions, throwing the first regular-season passes of his NFL career. Martz liked what he saw, and when he became San Francisco's offensive coordinator in January, he intimated to coach Mike Nolan that the team need look no further than O'Sullivan for the veteran quarterback it wanted to bring in to join Alex Smith and Shaun Hill at the position.

The 49ers signed O'Sullivan to a one-year contract for the veteran's minimum salary of $645,000 on the first day of NFL free agency on Feb. 29, and he has gradually been rising to central prominence in the San Francisco offense ever since.

Some NFL observers are surprised by that development. Others are not. One former NFL scout, now a prominent analyst covering the league, told SFI that O'Sullivan has everything a quarterback needs to succeed in the Martz system.

"I think what it is with J.T. is, he can play the part," he said. "He's super intelligent. He's never going to make a mental mistake. Nowadays in the NFL, above the shoulders is way more important than below the shoulders.

"The big thing for O'Sullivan is he can make the throws that Mike Martz's offense requires. It says something that Martz brought him in. O'Sullivan is an accurate quarterback and he can nail that 18-yard dig (pattern) that is the staple of that offense. If he can do that, he's going to have a legitimate chance to be the guy. Physically, he's probably a notch below the other guys. But mentally, he's probably ahead of them. I think O'Sullivan's intelligence and competency in this offense is huge and it gives him a legitimate chance. Is he the long-term solution? No. But can he win in there for a year? It's possible."

O'Sullivan is now in there as a starter – finally – and his rise to the position was accelerated earlier this month after O'Sullivan had watched from the sidelines as Smith and Hill took every snap in 11-on-11 team drills during the first seven days of training camp in July.

But when Smith and Hill struggled to pick up the offense, O'Sullivan got his shot with the first unit. Nobody knew it at the time, but the competition was essentially over. Nobody besides O'Sullivan worked with the first unit again this summer, and he clinched the job with strong performance as the starter the team's first three exhibition games.

The 49ers have quickly come around to their new man behind center.

"The leadership and qualities he has just makes you kind of want to latch onto it and follow a guy like that," rookie wide receiver Josh Morgan said. "J.T. knows the offense and he gets in there and takes command of the huddle. He goes out there and makes plays and gives us his all every time, and that's what you want in a quarterback."

O'Sullivan exhibited big-play ability during the preseason, hooking up with Morgan on a 59-yard touchdown pass to spark a 34-6 victory over Green Bay. The next week, he displayed ability to make plays on the move, scrambling to the sideline before unloading a 37-yard touchdown pass to receiver Jason Hill to put the 49ers ahead in a 37-30 victory at Chicago.

O'Sullivan was 7 of 8 passing for 126 yards and had a perfect quarterback rating of 158.3 in that game. He was named San Francisco's regular starter by Nolan the next day.

"That was a hell of a play by J.T. scrambling out and taking a hit," Hill said of their touchdown collaboration. "I've got a lot of confidence in him. He comes in the huddle and he commands our attention. It means a lot that (O'Sullivan's the starter), just because it's good for team morale and we can rally around J.T. now and let him know we have the confidence in him to get the job done."

Those words sound sweet to O'Sullivan, who certainly took the long way around to put himself in this position. But he's one guy that's definitely not about to suggest that he's arrived.

"I don't know if I'd classify it as that," O'Sullivan said. "I don't know if I'd be saying that's the greatest thing in the world. I'm worried now about going out there and playing, you know? But this is obviously the step that you need to take to play, so I'm definitely excited about that opportunity."

And with the way he's moved the offense this summer, O'Sullivan is getting others excited, too.


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