THE SEASON opener between the Cardinals and the 49ers gave the fans at San Francisco's Monster Park a wonderful opportunity to see a quarterback reinvent himself—though it was not the quarterback everyone expected.
This is an article from the Sept. 15, 2008 issue
The Niners' J.T. O'Sullivan, a sixth-round pick of the Saints in 2002, who's now with his eighth NFL team in seven seasons (to go with two stints in Europe), was making his first NFL start. He was also being hailed as the latest reclamation miracle of offensive coordinator Mike Martz after O'Sullivan beat out 2005 No. 1 pick Alex Smith in the preseason. But instead it was an old Martz protégé on the other side of the field, Arizona's Kurt Warner, who stole the show.
Known as a carefree gunslinger when he won league MVP awards under Martz's tutelage in St. Louis 1999 and 2001, the 37-year-old Warner was more controlled and efficient than bold and daring as he led the Cardinals to a 23--13 win.
Of his 19 completed passes, 11 went for nine yards or less. More shocking, he threw just two deep balls and completed only one of those, a 40-yarder to wideout Steve Breaston.
"Kurt's still going to make those throws downfield," said coach Ken Whisenhunt after the game, "but if it's not there, we want him to throw the check-down, throw underneath, which he did a couple of times with big results for us. I think he's bought into the idea that he has good players around him, and if he plays smart we have a chance to win."
For most of his career Warner has been a stationary pocket passer who rarely moved laterally to buy time before releasing the ball. On Sunday, though, he was sliding left and right to elude the rush and displayed a more careful approach that produced a turnover-free performance.
His reinvention overshadowed what some had expected to be O'Sullivan's coming-out party. The former UC Davis standout had suffered every indignity football has to offer, getting cut, traded, placed on the practice squad or otherwise banished numerous times before signing with San Francisco for the veteran's minimum of $605,000. At the start of training camp, coach Mike Nolan had not even mentioned him as a starting candidate.
But O'Sullivan's resolve in the face of big odds endeared him to Martz, who is famous for helping overlooked and underappreciated quarterbacks—see: Warner, Trent Green and Jon Kitna—become successful in the NFL. Martz likes that those passers had to work for their opportunity rather than have it handed to them because they were high draft picks. "You don't appreciate how sweet an orange is until you've tasted a lemon completely," says Martz, who coached O'Sullivan in Detroit last season.
O'Sullivan did nothing to embarrass himself in his debut, completing 14 of 20 passes for 195 yards. But his interception and two fumbles were among five San Francisco turnovers that helped sink the Niners. Cardinals players said that because there was so little game footage of O'Sullivan—he had just 26 career pass attempts entering the season, all of which came in 2007—they could only prepare for Martz's system. "We just wanted to get some pressure in his face, see how he handled it," said Arizona defensive end Bertrand Berry, who forced one of O'Sullivan's fumbles. "He handled it pretty well. I think he's going to be a solid quarterback."
While he's been compared to Warner, whose unlikely journey to NFL and Super Bowl MVP included a stint stocking shelves at an Iowa grocery store, O'Sullivan says he's never thought of giving up the game and looking elsewhere for a career. "Not once did I ever think about not playing football," he says. "Nothing against the people in each of those organizations [that cut me]; I'm sure they're great guys and extremely smart. But just because they tell me something doesn't mean I have to believe it."