SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Quarterback Alex Smith, who was deemed not good enough to start for the San Francisco 49ers in their most important game in eight years, will be the starter Sunday in the regular-season finale.
Why? Because interim coach Jim Tomsula believes Smith gives the Niners the best chance to win.
And? "Experience," Tomsula said Wednesday.
For Smith, it will very likely be his last time in a 49ers uniform. He's a free agent after this season, and given his unfulfilled six years with the team, his inability to keep the starting job and his 18-31 record as a starter, there's little question he's on his way out.
"That's all out there," he said. "Those are possibilities. But I'll have enough time to ponder and think about all that stuff after the season."
Tomsula said he consulted with offensive coordinator Mike Johnson before choosing Alex Smith over Troy Smith, who started last Sunday's game against the St. Louis Rams. The 49ers lost the game 25-17 and were eliminated from the NFC West race, leading to the firing of coach Mike Singletary.
Alex Smith will start against the Arizona Cardinals at Candlestick Park in what amounts to a game for last place. Both teams are 5-10. The 49ers are trying to avoid their second 11-loss season in four years.
That might be why Tomsula is insisting he's playing to win the game and not necessarily to evaluate first-year or less-experienced players.
"One thing I want to make clear, we're preparing to win the game," he said. "The evaluation process is ongoing always. I understand all the other things that are involved, our record, where we're at. (But) we're preparing for a game, to go in and compete to win."
Tomsula said he spoke with Alex Smith on Tuesday to inform him of the start, but he said the two didn't discuss any disagreements Smith might have had with Singletary.
"Up until Monday, the only evaluation I had was on defensive linemen, the front seven, defensive play," Tomsula said. "I'm a guy that, through the course of my coaching career, I keep my spoon in my soup. I don't taste your soup. I go in and do my job and do what I'm asked to do and do it to the best of my abilities."
Smith refused to describe his relationship with Singletary as volatile, but he said the past few weeks have been difficult, especially having to sit last Sunday and then being summoned to play in the fourth quarter.
"I'd be lying if I didn't say it was frustrating last week, finding out that with the season on the line I wouldn't get the start," he said. "But it happened. This week, I'm getting the nod. It's another opportunity and I'm excited about it. It's Week 17, and I think there's even more distractions at this point because we know the season's going to be over after Sunday. We're going to stay focused and go out there and take advantage of it."