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Talking Tua Tagovailoa, Philip Rivers, and more with former NFL QB J.T. O’Sullivan

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He played with 11 different teams, including the Chargers, and now O’Sullivan is looking to spread his love of knowledge about the game

Mississippi v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

I mostly remember J.T. O’Sullivan as a member of the New Orleans Saints, which is somewhat strange because O’Sullivan was only in New Orleans from 2002-2004 and never played a regular season snap for the Saints. He went on to have stints with the Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears (twice), Minnesota Vikings, New England Patriots, Carolina Panthers, Detroit Lions, San Francisco 49ers, Cincinnati Bengals, San Diego Chargers, Oakland Raiders, Saskatachewan Roughriders, and Frankfurt Galaxy (also twice).

His resume of having played with 11 different NFL teams was once the most ever, though Josh Johnson signed with his 12th different team in 2018 and his 13th in 2019 and kicker Shayne Graham has played for 14 different teams.

So while he may have a lack of starts relative to days spent on a roster (eight starts, all coming with the 49ers in 2008), O’Sullivan has a vast amount of knowledge and experience after spending almost a decade in the league. He played with Brett Favre, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Carson Palmer, Daunte Culpepper, Jake Delhomme, and many others, so he’s seen plenty of quality play and worked with countless good coaches.

After finishing play for the Roughriders in 2013, O’Sullivan worked in the athletic department at San Diego State University and as of December in 2018, is the head football coach at Patrick Henry High School. But O’Sullivan also started his YouTube channel The QB School one and a half years ago and has regularly been putting out videos of how he sees the game, explaining the intricacies of football as he’s learned it. This year that includes previews of quarterback prospects in the 2020 NFL Draft, which is when I came across the first part of his breakdown on Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa.

O’Sullivan also has videos for Justin Herbert, Jordan Love, Jake Fromm, Jacob Eason, Joe Burrow, Jalen Hurts, and Cole McDonald that you can check out at The QB School, with more to come, including the rest of the Tua breakdown.

I thought it would be good to reach out to J.T. to get some follow-up questions in about what he sees as important in a QB prospect, how he’d go about finding a quarterback if he was in the position that the Chargers are in, and what he learned from his six weeks in the room with Philip Rivers in 2010.

What are the top three traits that you look for in a QB on the field?

J.T. O’Sullivan: I don’t really think of it in that list attribute. It’s always a combination of things, never a checklist. I feel that’s always a bit of an easy way out. “Well he doesn’t check this box or that box.”

I think the non-negotiables are really just two things: How accurate is this quarterback consistently? And how do you measure their decision-making process?

Not only do they make good decisions in protecting the ball but decision-making off the field. Is that representative of how they operate on the field? There’s usually some connotation between those two behaviors. You have to be accurate. If you can’t throw the ball where you want to throw the ball, you’re just not going to last for long. That and decision-making, I think the consistency of those two things are the gateway to entry to having a long term career in the league.

As a bad example, Jameis Winston has a number of traits that you want in a quarterback but for whatever reason the decision-making, on the field, and then there’s been enough off the field that makes you want to look twice. And five years into his career there’s not a starting job for him. Those two things are the pillars that I build everything else off of.

Can a QB improve either of those things?

J.T.: I’m probably one of the people that lean far on the spectrum that most of these traits are developed, so you can continue to develop them. I think there are QBs who do them naturally better than others, both things, I think you can get better but if you’re starting at zero you’re going to have a hard time getting to 100. If you’re at 60, maybe you can get to 75. What that spectrum of growth looks like is different for everyone.

The draft is a crapshoot and anyone that tells you otherwise is not being honest. When you’re dealing with 20-year-olds who make maybe some poor decisions on and off the field, any 20-year-old is going to make it in any situation. Very rarely are people making great decisions when they’re 20 all the time. So there’s got to be some room to built in room for growth and maturity just like there would be in any job.

It’s intensified when you’re the face of a franchise.

How did your view of what was important about the job of being a quarterback change from the time you entered the NFL to the time your career was winding down?

J.T.: If anything it probably just kind of cemented what I always thought the most important thing for a quarterback was, which is to give your team a chance to win consistently and then really the best quarterbacks elevate those around them. Obviously you elevate the people in the huddle, but you also elevate the team, an organization, a program if you’re in college, you elevate a community, you elevate a region. You have to be able to elevate and influence large groups consistently. So those things got cemented in my mind.

The league is about one thing: It’s about winning. Everything else is a byproduct of that, so if you come in and think “I’m just gonna be a pro. I hope to make a team.” You’re going to probably struggle to have a long-term career because it’s a job hyper-focused on winning at the highest level against ultimate competitors and most of them are genetic freaks. To get outside of that box I think you’re doing yourself a disservice.

I appreciate the simplicity of it. you either win or you’re looking for work.

You spent six weeks with the Chargers in 2010, was that enough time to learn anything from Philip Rivers and if so, what did you take away from that experience?

J.T.: Yeah, I think I learned a bunch. I think Philip was and is really good. He is a shockingly accurate quarterback and has a great capacity to anticipate and to play at a really high level for a really long time. Also seems to never get hurt and was always in there. That was a time for me when I remember there were guys like “Yeah, he rubs me the wrong way.” Those were guys like — and I’m not naming anyone who would care — Ben Roethlisberger, Jay Cutler, and Philip at that time all had kind of a weird TV vibe.

I remember going into it like “What’s this going to be like?” And in all the best ways, he’s competitive. Everybody knows the stories now about the cussing, and not cussing. That’s just how he is. I appreciate people who are competitive, get after it, care, do everything right, prepare the right way, and then just compete like hell and are always available. I loved my time around Philip. Billy Volek was in the room too and he was a great long time pro. It was a fun group to be around.

If you were a general manager today, would you have a certain philosophy as to the best way to find a “franchise quarterback”?

J.T.: Obviously I’m not a GM, probably for good reason, but the answer is no. You have to get lucky. You either get lucky with timing and having the first pick in the draft and this year I think if Tua was healthy you’d have a hard time separating him from Joe Burrow. I know he had the greatest season that any college quarterback has ever had and you put on the film and you see why. But I really like Tua and I think it’s too easy to say “This young guy gets hurt a lot.”

I think he’s got a ridiculously high ceiling that I can’t even put in a house. That’s how good he can be. People forget how good he was, to be honest with you. Burrow has earned that recognition but for me it’s right there. I think you’re really fortunate this year if you’re picking in the top three because there’s a couple “can’t miss” guys. If anything has told you what the pattern of the NFL is, there’s a lot of luck.

You have to be fortunate, lucky, the timing of it. I’m excited to see what the future holds. I was a division-II, non-star quarterback. A lot of that was luck. Yes, you had to work hard and do everything you can to make a career out of it but if I was going nowadays, most teams don’t even carry three quarterbacks and for the first four or five years of my career, I was the third quarterback. There’s a realization that a lot of things that are out of your control to have success, so go as hard as you can and let the chips fall as they may.

With regards to you playing for a division-II school (UC Davis) and players like Tua and Burrow in the SEC, does it change your evaluation at all knowing that maybe their receivers get more separation or their offensive line gives them better protection?

J.T.: Well, both of those schools are SEC West, so everybody has dudes. I get it that LSU and Alabama might have even freakier freaks, but everybody is a freak just like the league is full of freaks. I think the one thing that separates some small school potential professionals is you really gotta jump off the film. For lack of a better analogy, “a man among boys.” You have to be a difference maker. It’s the same in the SEC, but you’re not throwing to first round guys and don’t have first round guys blocking for you. The Carson Wentz’s of the world, they’re the anomaly.

What would you say separates The QB School from other YouTube channels that breakdown football film?

J.T.: I’m trying to provide a level of analysis that just isn’t available on TV. Not because those guys don’t have the capacity, there’s a lot of great people on TV, they just don’t have the time to rewind the play five times and to draw over it two times and to talk about the footwork of the QB, where the eyes are, what the read is, for every single play. I’m trying to provide the most in-depth stuff out there and high enough in quality where it doesn’t hurt your eyes or your ears.

Then in the same regards, for me when I was coming up I always felt like “This guy’s dad played QB” or “This guy’s dad is a coach” and I wanted to provide that peak behind the curtain to show what it’s really like in a QB room and how they watch film. It’s that element of a peak behind the curtain but I’m also trying to be as unbiased as I can be and to make an entertaining, educational, and I want it be fun for fans, quarterbacks, guys who think they can become quarterbacks, maybe some coaches can enjoy it.

I’ve had a bunch of fun going through this college stuff and the YouTube thing, you go where the views are. If people are interested Tua or Justin Herbert, I can provide more content for that, it doesn’t matter to me. I give real time analysis of what people want to see the most.

I do just enough football that I enjoy it but I don’t have to coach in the league or worry about getting fired this year.

(For the record, J.T. didn’t ask me to plug The QB School, I genuinely wanted to plug it myself and wanted to get his elevator pitch. Having done many interviews before I know that a certain “plug” question can sound planted, but this is not one of those times!)