J. T. O'Sullivan, Longsore/Riley, Ned Colletti
by Glenn Dickey
Oct 15, 2008

NOT SURPRISINGLY, the local sports media has been quick to pile on 49er quarterback J. T. O’Sullivan as the 49ers season has turned sour. They never believed in him from the start, and the interceptions he has had in the fourth quarter make them think their original judgment is validated.

Except for one thing: Football is a team game. As important as the quarterback is, he can’t completely make up for weaknesses elsewhere, especially on defense.

I first learned this watching the 49ers in the ‘60s. Coach Red Hickey gave away quarterback Y. A. Tittle for Lou Cordileone, a trade even Cordileone couldn’t believe, because Tittle often threw interceptions, trying to compensate for a weak defense. Hickey would rail at him on the sidelines. In New York, when he threw an interception, Giants middle linebacker Sam Huff would tell him, “Don’t worry. We’ll get it back for you.”

And Tittle became a Hall of Fame quarterback because of his play in New York. Same quarterback but much different circumstances.

John Brodie took over for Tittle and became the target for the boo-birds. Playing on teams which were defensively-challenged until Dick Nolan became the coach, Brodie often faced desperate situations in the fourth quarter and threw interceptions trying to make something happen.

Sound familiar?

When the 49ers finally got a defense, Brodie took them to the NFC championship game in 1970 and the postseason the next two years. Again, the same quarerback but much different circumstances.

Years later, when I was working on my 49ers history book which was published in 1995, Brodie told me that, when he and Tittle were both with the 49ers, he and Tittle would meet early in the week to decide how many points the offense had to score to win the next game. “Sometimes, it was 35,” he said.

No quarterback is going to look good in those circumstances, and that’s exactly the situation for O’Sullivan now. The fourth quarter is always a desperate time for the offense because the 49er defense simply can’t make the stops it needs to make to win the game.

For O’Sullivan, there’s even more pressure because he knows that, with his nomadic past, there aren’t many people who believe in him. He’s obviously pressing in the fourth quarter, trying desperately to make something happen. When a quarterback starts doing that, it is a given that bad things will follow.

It’s never bothered me that O’Sullivan hasn’t won a starting job elsewhere because I know how difficult that is for a young quarterback who hasn’t played at the top collegiate level. Look how long it took Kurt Warner. The first time I saw Warner, against the 49ers in St. Louis in 1999, I wondered how everybody could miss him, but the answer is simple. The single most important factor in a quarterback’s success is his decision-making, but you can only see that in a game and a reserve quarterback seldom gets meaningful game time.

My impression of O’Sullivan remains the same. He has a lot of positives. He has good field vision, the ability to scramble away from the pass rush for yardage, an accurate arm and the ability to throw deep with accuracy.

He needs to relax in the fourth quarter and continue to play the way he has in the first three quarters instead of pressing to make a play that isn’t there. But, that’s a lot easier to say than do, especially when O’Sullivan knows that, if he doesn’t make that improbable play in the fourth quarter, the 49ers lose.

Replacing the quarterback isn’t the answer for the Niners. Fixing the defense is.

CAL QBS: An interesting idea was proposed by a reader, Adam Allioni: that Nate Longshore play the first half for Cal, because he seems to start the game faster, and that Kevin Riley play the second half, because he seems to have the competitive fire needed at the end.

It made sense to me. Longshore obviously still has a better knowledge of what can be done to combat an opposing defense, which is why he starts faster. Riley could benefit from watching in the first half and then put his superior physical ability to work in the second half.

But the Bears head coach Jeff Tedford made it plain, when we talked after yesterday’s media lunch, that he doesn’t like the idea.

“That probably would have worked better last year,” said Tedford, in an obvious though unstated reference to Longshore’s ankle injury that made him increasingly more erratic as the game went on. “I’m not sure it would be a good idea this year. The problem is, if you commit to playing another quarterback in the second half, you may be replacing a guy who has a hot hand.”

Tedford doesn’t like a two-quarterback system. Few coaches ever do. He refused to commit to a starting quarterback yesterday and said it would depend on how practice goes, with both Longshore and Riley getting equal snaps with the first unit. But Longshore usually looks better in practice, where defensive players cannot hit the quarterback, so he probably will be the starter.

Whatever happens, Cal will have a winning season. The defense is playing at a high level and the conference is weak. USC, despite the upset loss to Oregon State, is obviously the best team and still has an outside chance of being in the national championship game, but there is not a top-notch team below the Trojans. This is hardly the best Cal team that Tedford has had but it is probably the second-best team in the conference.

The Bears are capable of beating the non-USC conference teams with Longshore at quarterback. But their only chance to beat the Trojans – a slim one - is with Riley.

BIG WEAPON: One of the most amazing developments in the Cal season has been freshman punter Bryan Anger. Asked if he thought Anger should be the All-American punter, Tedford said, “Absolutely. He’s capable of kicking it very deep or very high. He’s a real weapon. He’s only five games into his college career. With more experience, he’ll get more consistency and be even better.”

Tedford has his earphones on during games so he isn’t conscious of the crowd’s reaction, but he noted that he has heard it at those practices open to the public. And when he played the video to his team of the 71-yard punt Anger hit in the fourth quarter against Colorado State, both coach and players reacted.

“It was really something to see the return man looking up and then start running back,” he said. “And when our players saw that, they really got excited, jumping up and screaming.”

COLLETTI’S MODEL: In midseason, Dodgers fans wanted to have general manager Ned Colletti fired. Then, the Red Sox, desperate to get rid of Manny Ramirez, practically gave him away to the Dodgers, and Ramirez fueled a late run by the Dodgers which got them to the postseason – and Colletti may be named baseball’s Executive of the Year.

All of which reminds me of the Giants scenario of 30 years ago. Spec Richardson was generally a disaster as general manager but in 1978, he had Vida Blue fall in his lap. A’s owner Charlie Finley had re-signed Blue to a big contract, promising him he’s remain in Oakland. But Finley and the truth were never close friends. He immediately tried to sell Blue to the Yankees, but baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn nullified the deal. Finley then traded Blue to the Giants for a group of players who weren’t very good but had the benefit of low salaries.

Then, Blue revitalized the Giants, with his pitching and his emotions. The Giants led the division for most of the season before fading to third at the end.

So, why was Richardson a disaster as the Giants GM? Not so much for his trades, some of which were good, more of which were bad, but the advice he gave new owner Bob Lurie at the start, to join the Major League Scouting Bureau and dismantle the Giants group of scouts. Those scouts were responsible for bringing in the great young talent that made the Giants so exciting to watch in the 1958-71 period. The Giants fell out of contention after that because of some terrible trades which wasted this talent, but the scouts were still bringing in good young talent.

The decision to join the Major League Scouting Bureau ended all that, and the Giants have gotten very little from their farm system since then.

TIMING IS EVERYTHING: The New Orleans Saints must wish for the old days, when they were in the same division with the 49ers. It wasn’t a good thing for the Saints then because that was in the dynasty period for the 49ers, who beat them like a drum. Much different now, as the Saints showed with lopsided wins over both the 49ers and Raiders this month. If the Saints could get a reconfiguration which would put them in with the 49ers and Raiders, they’d be starting 4-0.


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