J.T. O’Sullivan stepped onto an NFL football field during a game for the first time in 2005. The job at hand for the backup quarterback wasn’t much: All he had to do was kneel in the victory formation. And then do it again.
That morsel of live-game experience didn’t satiate O’Sullivan’s appetite. Far from it — this was his third year in the league, and he was already on his third team, and he was ready to throw the damn ball. He knew he had the talent to fling it down the field, hitting guys like Donald Driver on a sweet post route. But for now, the ball had nowhere to be but securely in O’Sullivan’s hands until the whistle blew. Brett Favre’s marvelous arm got the limelight instead, as it was wont to do.
“I always tell people that when you’re in the NFL, but not actually playing, it feels like you die a little each Sunday. It’s tough to be that jacked up and not get a chance to play,” O’Sullivan tells me. “When we finally do play, it’s a blast. It’s pure. It’s a dream come true.”
It would take another two and a half years, and stints on the bench for seven different teams, before O’Sullivan got a taste of that dream in genuine fashion. As a member of the Detroit Lions, he watched from the sideline as veteran QB Jon Kitna got battered by the Minnesota Vikings for a concussion in a critical division matchup. O’Sullivan donned his helmet and strode out onto the turf. He heard the play call crackle in his earpiece.
O’Sullivan threw 24 passes that day, including two interceptions and his first career touchdown, to future Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson on a seven-yard fade route. It was just a little alley-oop to the one of the most physically gifted receivers in football history, but that game ball still rests on a shelf, encased in plexiglass, in the office of the 40-year-old’s San Diego home.
Over a decade-long football career, O’Sullivan only amassed modest numbers in the NFL while also playing stints in the now-defunct NFL Europe. His longest string of starts came in 2008, when he took the lead role in San Francisco under the tutelage of brilliant offensive mind Mike Martz, and even that didn’t last more than half a season before he got benched. But when I ask him about the stress he must’ve felt while grinding out a career in the margins, he just chuckles in his smooth, mellow baritone. Yes, it’s true, he says: It really blows to not get playing time, especially when you’re ping-ponging across the country and sleeping in an extended-stay motel (again).
Yet the experience left him with a deep appreciation for life as a journeyman, with a story that begins in his halcyon days at UC Davis (where he became only the second-ever Division II player to receive a Heisman vote) and ends today with his new life as a witty, whip-smart football analyst on his YouTube channel, The QB School. It’s here where his wisdom and football IQ, honed through (mandatory) study of countless playbooks and offensive systems, shines brightest. He’s one of a number of football nerds dropping detailed Xs-and-Os content on YouTube, but no one else can claim such a sheer diversity of pro experience.
I spoke to O’Sullivan recently for nearly an hour to understand how he’s grown from his playing days and why he loves being a high school coach in San Diego. I also asked him about an age-old assumption from jealous football fans: Is being a career backup really the cushiest gig in sports?
You were a four-year letterman at UC Davis, a Division II school that didn’t have much of a football pedigree. When did you start to realize that you could get drafted and play pro ball?
Getting drafted was never the goal. I guess, maybe, it was in the back of my mind.
At the time, we were a very good D2 school. We had a reputation for putting out some good coaches and then had a handful of quarterbacks that went to really good places. A lot of it was that we were kind of on the forefront of throwing the ball back in the day. We threw it a lot. The guy who played ahead of me the first two years, Kevin Daft, ended up getting drafted by the Titans in the fifth round. I guess in the back of my mind, I thought that I was better than him. But he was the one playing.
Eventually, I got to start, and at the very end of my senior season, I just remember my coach telling me, “Hey, you graded out as a potential mid-round pick.” This was a non-scholarship school, mind you. I wasn’t thinking about the league. I was thinking about what I’d do that weekend.
Draft prep has changed a lot since the early 2000s. Where was your head when you realized you could be selected? And what did you feel when you ultimately got picked in the sixth round?
Once you get an agent, you start spending money on preparing, and you realize, “Oh, this is what I’m really doing.” [Laughs] I mean, I got pretty confident at that point, and I would’ve been really pissed if I wasn’t drafted. In fact, I was upset where I got drafted. I felt I should have been drafted a little bit earlier. It’s this long process where you talk to so many teams, and they tell you maybe more than they intend — you never can know if it’s the truth. I had organizations tell me, “Hey, we’re taking you.” And instead they pick some other guy before me. Stuff like that sticks with you. It’s more than a dream to be drafted as a Division II guy. But it pissed me off anyway.
The New Orleans Saints took you, and they had two QBs already in Aaron Brooks and Jake Delhomme. How did you get motivated to fight for a roster spot?
Once the excitement and emotions of the draft fades away, you’re left with the big questions: What does the situation look like at the team that picked you? Can you earn that spot? And really, when I say “earn the spot,” what we’re really saying is, “Can you take someone’s job?” That’s the reality of it. You need the mindset that you’re taking someone’s job. And a lot of it is just being fortunate, too. I was really lucky at Davis that my head coach, Mike Moroski, was a former NFL QB and bounced around for a decade as a backup. I got really good advice on how to prepare, how to stick around, how to endure not getting reps, how to be valuable.
You were sent to Frankfurt, Germany to play in the developmental NFL Europe league in 2004 before returning to the Saints later that year and getting traded to the Packers not long after. Did this feel like a step backward for your career?
Not necessarily. That was always the plan. Things were different back then. A lot of guys that I got drafted with went to NFL Europe in the first off-season. But the Saints wanted me to stick around for a full off-season with the team, and then the following spring, they sent me to Europe to get real snaps. To be honest with you, I was already coming toward the end of my rookie deal. I was ready to play. And it really was the best thing for me to go to Frankfurt Galaxy, play well and come back to the U.S. just in time for training camp. I’m coming back in mid-season form playing the best ball of my life, and I got the backup job.
My third year in New Orleans went great. Then a month into the season I got traded. It was almost one of those things where you play so well that you get another team wants you. It was so frustrating on a number of levels because it felt like I went from a spot where I was really close to playing… and then landed behind Brett Favre, who never gets hurt.
How do you think losing NFL Europe affects the league today? Can you imagine your career without that proving ground?
I mean, to be honest with you, I probably wouldn’t have survived. I was the third quarterback for essentially four years. I often wasn’t on the gameday active list — I was like the extra guy that could dress in case there was an injury. And that position doesn’t exist anymore. A lot of teams don’t carry three quarterbacks today.
In the second half of my career, the only reason I got back in the league after being cut from Minnesota in my fourth year was because I went back to Europe and [then-Detroit Lions offensive coordinator] Mike Martz saw my film and thought I could help. That gave me basically another four or five years in the league. Without the developmental ability, nothing would’ve been the same. And it’s a bummer for everyone now, but especially quarterbacks, wondering where they can have that experience — the XFL, maybe? It’s hard to get any reps in the league, and it’s hard to prove you belong and can be a pro and be consistent if all you’re doing is playing on the scout team as a backup.
The other thing younger guys don’t like to hear is that, in reality, so much of success in the league is luck. If you get drafted and it’s a good situation, where a coach sticks around, that’s very different from playing with a new coach each year. The guy that comes to mind right now is Baker Mayfield. He’s been through four coordinators. It’s tough to be successful like that. It’s not an excuse. It’s reality. I was fortunate where I got tethered to a couple of really good coaches and guys who I believe taught me the game in a way that I could sustain a career. Mike McCarthy, who was my offensive coordinator in New Orleans — he was a young guy back then who just loved ball and wanted to share a lot. The second half of my career I was with Mike Martz, who’s got the reputation of being a borderline offensive savant. My position coach was Adam Gase at multiple stops. We can argue about their head coaching records, but these were good coaches and I got lucky.
Did you find yourself mentoring other players while in the thick of your career? It seems like teams appreciate journeymen QBs partly for the stability and lessons they can bring.
I don’t know if I was ever good enough to be the guy who would mentor the young guy. Frankly, I was always the guy who was fighting for his job. If I have eight years in the league and the franchise QB has five, well, there’s not a whole lot I can tell him he doesn’t already know. But then one day you’re the 10-year guy and you’re in the second-team huddle with all rookies. Then it’s just like any sort of situation where you have influence as a leader. You want to model the way. You want to show them how to be a pro. You want your effort to exceed their expectations.
People are always asking, “What’s the difference between guys who stick in the league and guys who don’t?” It’s easy: You have to perform consistently at a really high level. The hard part is doing it because everybody wants to be good and everybody is pretty good. It’s not good enough to go out there and have one good day at practice. It has to be every day, full effort. For some people that might be innate. For a lot of people, though, it’s a learned skill and you gotta grind.
I love preparation more than probably the average player, but I learned it from watching other guys. Guys like Jake Delhomme, Brad Johnson, even Brett Favre. Brett probably wouldn’t admit to being an intentional mentor. But you can’t help but take things from him when you watch him every day.
The question every football fan loves to wonder about: Is being a third-string QB the best job in the league?
Yeah. I mean, it’s a great job. I mean, it’s not as black and white as that, right? I get it from the fan perspective. Optically, it looks like a great deal. In reality, you’re a guy who’s always at risk of being replaced. They’re always trying to upgrade you. You’re never in a good situation. Then the other thing is, most of those guys are professional competitors. They would be competing their hardest in any activity or sector of life. So if that’s the case, you’re not going to ever be satisfied with not playing. It just eats at your soul. I mean, are you going to complain about the paychecks? Probably not! And I will say, not getting hit in my career… I look back at how I played a decade and I barely ever got touched, as opposed to other guys who have serious physical issues and mental issues. I’m really fortunate.
Losing the starting job in San Francisco to Shaun Hill seemed to signal another turning point in your career. Ultimately, you retired in 2012 after a couple years in and out of the NFL. What was that decision like?
I mean, dude, to be honest with you, not very many people retire. I got kicked out of the league and that’s what happens. If someone would’ve signed me, I would’ve kept playing. I never had a ceremony. I guess the decision was, all right, you’re on the phone with your reps and they’re like, “Hey, we’re not getting any calls.” I could go on the workout circuit and wait for a call. But then you gotta start making some decisions. At that point, I’d already been transitioning into going back to school for my master’s. I was in Canada for a year trying to play football, but I basically figured I was done. And I went straight into a PhD program for sports leadership in San Diego. The NFL offers a $20,000-a-year subsidy for education, to go back and get whatever degree you want or need.
Do you ever wish things went differently in your career?
I think the best part is I can look back on my career and know that I gave that sucker everything I possibly had. I sucked the absolute bone marrow out of that experience and put everything I could into it. Of course it was stressful. But I never let ambiguity bug me too much. I was never forced into football. I was single in my 20s, so moving was no big thing. The flip side of that is now I’m 40, I have a family and I’m not interested in moving. Therefore, I’m not a coach at any higher level than high school.
Do the kids you coach at Patrick Henry High in San Diego know who you are, and the career you had?
I’m not sure they know the extent, but they do, yeah. I use it in different ways, right? I can tell them, “Hey, I’m not making this play up. This is the same play that the Packers run, this is the same play that the Chargers run. This is how they do it. I didn’t get it off TV. I know it. This might be how they read the route progression. This is how we’ll read it. It’s from a playbook I didn’t invent, it’s just NFL stuff.” That gets their attention.
It can feel like a generational slap in the face, but the kids always want to know “why” nowadays. Why, coach, why do we do this? Why do we do that? Some coaches hate this, but I think it’s a good thing to teach the answers. I want players to ask why, I want them to have a better understanding of what we’re doing. I want them to think outside of their own eyeballs and understand a bigger picture, a more macro lens.
What is the future of football like given all the concerns about head trauma and physical injuries? You must talk to parents about this on a regular basis.
Yeah, we definitely have those conversations. We stress that safety is a priority in our program. I don’t let people get off the hook by making it a bullet point for meet-the-parents night. We have evidence of what we do. So it’s basically borderline zero live tackling. It just doesn’t exist. We emphasize not going to the ground in practice, to erase violent collisions as much as possible.
But, you know, the future of football is hard to predict. I’m not smart enough to have an answer. A decline in participation across the country is probably not a good thing. Neither is the notion that, if you look at the demographics, the kids who play at the highest level are probably not socioeconomically advantaged. That’s probably something the sport needs to address.
And now, in addition to teaching high school kids about football, you’re doing it with fans on The QB School. What do you hope to achieve with this content?
The genesis of it was to just create the stuff that I wish existed when I was growing up. There was always this aura of the secret sauce that the NFL has, and that only a small group of players and coaches have access to it. But a lot of fans want that deep analysis. And they’re not getting it off of broadcasts.
It’s pretty fascinating to see how YouTube has changed everything — my kids only want to watch stuff on that platform. Two years ago, if you’d asked me to engage with comments on YouTube, I would’ve called you insane. But really, the value of it is this amazing real-time feedback that’s honest and authentic from people who follow what you do.
I think I keep understanding how sports has a unique place in American society, and remains a unifier like few other things. Political tensions are high on all sides. You might have totally opposite views about just about every other thing, but you both love the Chiefs. That’s a powerful thing that you really can’t replicate in almost any other sector. And so how you can use that influence with sports is a unique space that has a ton of potential.