Posted by Scouts Inc.'s Keith Kidd
The system new offensive coordinator Mike Martz has brought to San Francisco is a creative, up-tempo system that utilizes a lot of unique personnel groupings and packages to spread a defense out and force it to cover from sideline to sideline. The quarterback is asked to process information quickly at the line and get the offense out of bad plays and into good ones. He must get a feel for the timing and rhythm of the offense in order to throw to spots where his receivers should be.
Martz utilizes various option routes and route adjustments, and if the quarterback has a big enough arm the secondary will have to defend those routes on all three levels as well as across the entire width of the field. That creates a lot of space on the back end and gives receivers the chance to make big plays if the quarterback can process what he's seeing quickly, hit his landmarks in the pocket and deliver the ball precisely and on time.
That would seem to tip the scales in favor of J.T. O'Sullivan, who played in Martz's system last season in Detroit and has proven that he can be functional in the right offensive system. He doesn't have the overall skills to be a quality starter who can make an offense better all by himself, but he has enough arm strength to be efficient, though. The numbers Jon Kitna put up in Detroit the last two years under Martz -- 39 total touchdowns and 8,276 total yards -- prove that the system works if the quarterback does what he is supposed to.
The key for O'Sullivan is to stay within himself, take what the defense gives him and avoid turnovers. He lacks Alex Smith's mobility, but if O'Sullivan can slide in the pocket and hit passing windows he has a chance to do some things. And his yards-per-attempt average in the preseason -- 9.4 to just 5.0 for Smith -- backs that up and indicates that he is hitting his spots a little better than Smith. Still, even the plays he made in the preseason game against Green Bay were not that impressive as they were often the result of coverage breakdowns.
Smith has been labeled a bust in some circles, but in fairness a lot of things outside his control have hindered his development. He is playing under his fourth offensive coordinator in as many years and never had much of a supporting cast. He's had problems staying healthy, but playing behind an offensive line that gave up a franchise-record 55 sacks last year didn't help.
However, Smith has shown mobility and flashes of front-line ability with his arm and pocket presence, but he just does not seem to be processing things quickly enough this preseason and that is the biggest key in Martz's offense. If he can't make the right reads, avoid turnovers and put the offense in a position to succeed, then he won't win the job.
And with defenses getting helmet communications from the sideline for the first time this season, handling coverage concepts and disguises, identifying blitzes and hitting hot reads will be even more important. Failing to do those things will get Smith killed before he has a chance to do anything.
Deciding who starts will be a tricky decision. Smith makes the most sense from a political standpoint, despite his sometimes strained relationship with head coach Mike Nolan. Sending him to the bench would mean admitting San Francisco missed on a No. 1 overall pick and force the 49ers to essentially start over at quarterback. But O'Sullivan has been slightly better in the preseason and if Nolan decides to go with Smith anyway he risks losing the locker room and upsetting team chemistry.
So watch Thursday's game against Chicago -- that will likely decide this competition. If O'Sullivan struggles and Smith looks better, then Smith wins out. Should it go the other way then O'Sullivan's experience will win the day and he will get the nod in Week 1. Either way, it's key the decision be made after this game. Martz's system depends on timing and reps. The longer the competition drags out, the more the offense suffers.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.