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Dealing With Unknowns


New 49ers quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan (right) gets advice from offensive coordinator Mike Martz during a preseason game.

Cardinals nose tackle Bryan Robinson chuckled at the thought of defending new 49ers quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan.

"It's weird," Robinson said, "but me personally? It scares me. You don't know what the guy is capable of."

That's the mystery of O'Sullivan, the man who emerged from nowhere to start for San Francisco. The man who is playing for his eighth team in only his sixth season. The man who, by many accounts, will be the one who decides the course of head coach Mike Nolan's future.

The Cardinals never counted on seeing O'Sullivan in the season opener. It would probably be Alex Smith, the top pick of the 2005 draft. It might have been another journeyman, Shaun Hill, who played well late last season and earned a surprising contract extension.

But O'Sullivan was brought in after the 49ers hired Mike Martz to be their offensive coordinator. O'Sullivan was on the Lions' roster last season, knew Martz's offense, and despite what was called an open competition, seemed to be Martz's choice to run the offense from early in training camp.

O'Sullivan downplayed the connection – "It was nice to have some familiarity with the verbiage and the concepts, but you know, it was just about make the most out of each (practice) rep," he said – but another quarterback familiar with Martz's complicated schemes said it had to have given O'Sullivan a big benefit.

"If you are in a system longer than someone else, you're going to have an advantage," said Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner, who was similarly picked up off the scrap heap in St. Louis when Martz was offensive coordinator. "Especially in that system, where there is so much information that you absorb so quickly. Maybe (O'Sullivan) really feels he didn't, but … day one, you can call a play and no one else can."

It had to have made some difference. San Francisco coach Mike Nolan said O'Sullivan didn't get many reps in practice while with the Lions and O'Sullivan wasn't part of the mix in the offseason or the first week of training camp.

Then, suddenly, he was.

At one point during camp, when asked about a "fair" quarterback competition, Martz told the questioner, "Let's get one thing straight. There's nothing fair about this league." Such a comment couldn't have set well with either Smith or Hill.

But if Martz was directing the offensive side of the ball with Nolan's blessing, that didn't really matter.

"(Martz) knows the kind of quarterbacks that play well in that system, and that's part of it," Warner said. "If he feels he is a legitimate guy and especially the best guy they've got, Mike must have confidence in him."

Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, like his players, doesn't know much about O'Sullivan. But he said if he is the man the 49ers have entrusted to run Martz's offense, there is cause for concern.

The Cardinals' defense, however, has been anxious to run some of their tricks and stunts too, however. The reality is O'Sullivan has played in just five NFL games – never starting – and has thrown just 26 regular-season passes.

It's always possible Martz has stumbled upon yet another no-name, NFL Europe veteran who can make it in the NFL. Warner was the first, and he turned out pretty well.

The Cards figure to learn where O'Sullivan stands soon enough.

"We know their offensive coordinator," linebacker Karlos Dansby said. "We don't need to know about J.T. O'Sullivan. We know their offensive coordinator, we know exactly how he's going to try and attack us."

Contact Darren Urban at Posted 9/4/08.

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