The San Francisco 49ers few home from London on Monday, and you can bet that coach Mike Singletary spent virtually every minute of the 10-hour flight thinking about just one thing.
His quarterback situation.
If seven-game starter Alex Smith is recovered from a separated left shoulder, does he get his old job back? Or does Singletary stay with one-game starter Troy Smith, who took the 49ers to only their second win of the season, a 24-16 victory over the Denver Broncos at Wembley Stadium?
It's not an easy decision, and no matter what Singletary does, he'll face enormous second-guessing. He has said all season that Alex Smith is his starter, which is one reason the team traded veteran Shaun Hill to the Detroit Lions in March and signed David Carr to be the backup. Singletary didn't want Smith to feel any uncertainty; the job was his no matter what.
But after Troy Smith put in a commendable performance against the Broncos, keeping plays alive with his feet and finding receivers in difficult situations, Singletary compared him to Brett Favre and said that one throw Smith made is what "separates one quarterback from another."
For Singletary, that's effusive praise. He doesn't compliment players or their performances lightly; if he says someone played OK, it's taken as a positive review. His remarks about Troy Smith were clearly over the top.
So which way does he go, assuming that Alex Smith remains on a 2-3 week recovery schedule? The 49ers have a bye this week and don't play again until Nov. 14 against the St. Louis Rams – three weeks to the day after Smith suffered his injury. Here are some pros and cons with each player:
Pros: Smith is a sixth-year veteran who knows the system, knows the players and simply needs more time with new offensive coordinator Mike Johnson. When he plays with a sense of urgency, he can be very good (witness the 27-24 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles). If the 49ers give Johnson a chance to open up the offense, Smith will benefit.
Cons: It's been long enough. Even though Alex has been under duress for most of his time in San Francisco, he's had plenty of chances to demonstrate an ability to make plays and be the team's offensive leader. His throws tend to be off the mark, and he too frequently dumps off to his running backs because of poor reads. After 47 career starts, fans have seen enough.
Pros: In only his third NFL start, the former Heisman Trophy winner showed an uncanny ability to use his feet, buy himself time to throw and manage a game. Isn't that alone worth another shot? He completed 12 of 19 passes Sunday, hit Michael Crabtree for a TD and didn't throw an interception – even an ill-advised deep pass to Delanie Walker, who was double-covered, turned out well. Smith is worth a second look.
Cons: It was just one game. Who's to say Troy won't stumble and fall if he's given another start? And if Singletary has to go back to Alex Smith, he'll have a disgruntled QB who feels he was lied to. Troy Smith had three years (and two starts) to prove himself with the Baltimore Ravens. If he couldn't win a starting job there, why should the 49ers think he can be a starter with them? Yes, he uses his feet well, but that's how quarterbacks get hurt. How long will he last doing that?