August 27, 2008
SI's 2008 NFL Scouting Reports
San Francisco 49ers
Projected Finish: 3rd in NFC West
O'Sullivan has played only five NFL games but knows Martz's system.
Greg Trott/Getty Images
2008 Schedule

Being drafted No. 1 doesn't mean much if you can't get the job done, which is why Alex Smith is now the No. 2.

During a break between practices in the first week of training camp,quarterback Alex Smith, the first pick of the 2005 draft, walked slowly toward awooden bench outside the 49ers' locker room and sat down. He had black sandalson his feet, a large ice pack on his surgically repaired right shoulder and adisbelieving smile on his face.

"I never in a million years envisioned it would go like this," he said of thestruggle that has marked his brief NFL career. "When I left Utah early, I did sobecause I felt there was nothing left for me to accomplish [after leading theUtes to an undefeated season in 2004]. I could have gone back for another year,but I really felt I had hit this pinnacle and was ready to take that next stepin my development and get some NFL coaching. I was 20 years old and had a lot infront of me. That's what was in my head: I'm going to develop and have a longcareer ahead of me."

Smith may yet develop and have a long career, but it's hard to believe muchmore of it will be in San Francisco. Coach Mike Nolan announced in late Augustthat sixth-year journeyman J.T. O'Sullivan will be the starter when the 49ersopen the season on Sept. 7 against the Cardinals, all but signaling an end tothe Alex Smith Era after three seasons. Smith, whom the Niners signed to acontract that paid him $24 million in guarantees, was 11-19 as a starter. Inseven games before being sidelined by a separated shoulder after Week 10 lastseason, he threw two touchdown passes and four interceptions and had a passerrating of 57.2. Smith looked uneven in the first three preseason games thissummer.

Nolan says Smith remains in the team's plans, but "right now," he adds,O'Sullivan has a better command of the offense and gives the 49ers the bestchance to win. The mere fact that Smith failed to beat out a player who hasnever started an NFL game, has only 26 career pass attempts and was waived orlet go by seven other teams does not speak well for how Smith is viewed withinthe organization -- particularly after new offensive coordinator Mike Martz statedearly in camp that Smith needed to show more grit and resolve to be successful."He's got a real decision to make," Martz said. "I told him [that putting thestarting job up for competition] will either destroy him or it will make him.He's got the physical ability, so he's either going to have to establish thatresolve and toughness and confidence that nobody can ever take from him, orhe'll doubt himself the rest of his career and he'll never makeit. . . . This game will humble you, and he hasn't beenhumbled yet."

At the same time that Martz questioned Smith, the respected coordinatoradmitted that few highly drafted quarterbacks have faced the adversity Smithhas. The 24-year-old has entered every season with a new coordinator, adifferent No. 1 wide receiver (whose talent often didn't warrant thedesignation) and an offensive line that has been in a state of flux because ofinjuries and poor performance.

O'Sullivan won the job largely because he was familiar with Martz's offense,having served under him as a backup when both were in Detroit last season. A2002 sixth-round pick by the Saints out of UC Davis, he has appeared in five NFLgames, but Martz, who praises O'Sullivan's vision and release, has no fear ofgoing with an untested trigger man after tutoring the likes of Kurt Warner,Trent Green and Jon Kitna -- undrafted or late-round picks who traveled the backroads to success.

The Niners' special teams are solid, and the defense, which was good lastseason, was upgraded by the signing of free-agent end Justin Smith and thereturn of linebacker Manny Lawson from knee surgery. So it's not a reach to saythat their season, as well as Nolan's future as coach, ride on the play of thequarterback. That J.T. O'Sullivan would be that quarterback is something theNiners could not have imagined. -- Jim Trotter


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