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News, notes and reader questions about the San Francisco 49ers

July 31, 2008
Cliff Notes for the 49ers quarterback conundrum

Training camp is full of minutia. Shaun Hill goes 6 for 9 in the morning practice. Mark Roman tweaks a hammy. Nate Clements takes part in punt-return drills. There's a ton of it every day (actually, every practice) and the Internet is a great way to deliver that information. But all that minutia can be blinding. It's like one of those French paintings that are composed of thousands of tiny drips of paint. Sometimes it's necessary to take a step back and look at the macro.

So let's take a deep breath and look at the quarterback situation. Ok, maybe take ten deep breaths. What have we learned after a week of training camp? Nothing really. Mike Martz the other day was very frank in saying that the quarterback situation has looked rough around the edges because he has been trying to cram so much into the brains of Hill and Alex Smith. Both have looked ragged over the first seven days of training camp. Indeed, the entire offense sometimes looks out of sync, and coaches often have to get the offense back in the huddle - or "reload" in coach-speak - when it doesn't line up correctly. But Martz insists it won't be long before we start seeing a smoother product. The base offense is installed. With more repetitions, Smith and Hill will grow more confident. And we have to defer to Martz on this. He's an expert at offense. He's been through this many times before, and he was right on in the spring when he made a similar prediction.

So what to make of the latest J.T. O'Sullivan development? That's trickier. Here are the facts. According to Mike Nolan, Martz held Hill out of the last half of the Wednesday a.m. practice because he thought his arm needed a rest. Hill also sat out team drills in the p.m. practice and didn't throw a ball today. That O'Sullivan would get a few repetitions during Hill's absence is not surprising. What was surprising is that he took all of the first-team repetitions that Hill would have gotten. Nolan's explanation for this is twofold. First, he said it wouldn't be fair to Hill if Smith started getting more first-team repetitions. Second, he essentially said that because O'Sullivan is in the mix to be the starter this season he ought to be getting some first-team repetitions, too.

That's a little tough to understand. Nolan said today that O'Sullivan has been in the quarterback competition all along. But because there aren't enough repetitions to go around in training camp, Smith and Hill have been getting all the snaps. Which is a little bit like saying there's a third-party candidate in this election, but there was no room to put him on the ballot. If O'Sullivan truly has a shot at winning the starting job, then why did it take until July 30 for him to throw a pass to the first-team receivers in team drills? And what about Smith? If he's in a head-to-head race with Hill, and Hill has to drop out for a couple of days, doesn't that mean Smith surges ahead? Not so, Nolan said. The quarterback who gives the best chance to win games, will be the starter, he said today.

It'll be interesting to see if Hill is back in the lineup tomorrow. He said he would be. In fact, he said his throwing arm didn't hurt at all. "I guess it was just noticeably tired," he said. Which is to say that Hill didn't take himself out of the competition, Martz did. If Hill is running the first-team offense tomorrow, we'll be back to the training-camp status quo. If not, it could mean the new battle is between Smith and O'Sullivan..

-- Matt Barrows


Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.


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