Is Smith the right starting choice at QB?

A high-profile 49ers offensive starter told SFI on Wednesday that Alex Smith hasn't out-performed Tim Rattay so far in training camp, which raises the question of whether it's the right thing for the team to be starting the rookie in place of the incumbent veteran during Saturday's preseason opener against the Oakland Raiders.

Rattay, who started nine games last year in his first season as San Francisco's regular quarterback, has been listed as the team's No. 1 QB all year, and he remains there on the team's official depth chart even as of today. Coach Mike Nolan even said Rattay was the team's No. 1 QB entering training camp, but that has not necessarily been the case since the 49ers got there.

When camp practices began July 30, Smith was in the first-team huddle and took the first snaps with the first unit in team drills. Nolan initially said he planned to rotate those duties with Rattay – and perhaps even Ken Dorsey – after a few days. But when a few days came and passed, Smith was still in the No. 1 role and has remained there throughout camp.

While Smith has been in the spotlight since camp began, and has displayed solid progress in most areas of his development, he hasn't necessarily looked better as a passer than Rattay.

A key offensive starter, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Smith and Rattay have performed "pretty even" so far in camp – not enough for Smith to take Rattay's starting job away. But he also said the team understands the decision. Smith has got to play now so the team can get a read on what he might be able to do when the real games begin in September.

Still, everybody also would have understood if Rattay got the nod against the Raiders, giving Smith a chance to work into live action gradually against second-line defenders. That might even be a better situation for Smith rather than throwing him into the fire, especially considering some players don't feel he has distanced himself from Rattay on the depth chart.

When SFI asked Rattay if he thought Wednesday's decision was based on performance, he responded, "That's something you have to ask coach Nolan. That's their decision, so you have to ask them why they did that. Right now, I'm just concerned with what I'm doing, how I'm preparing and how I'm getting ready."

Fair enough. So we asked Nolan.

His answer was that the team decided to keep things the way they have been at the position since camp began. But, just like he has been doing since May minicamps, Nolan also wants to see how Smith responds to the pressure of being No. 1, of playing in front-line situations against front-line defenders. There is always time to hand the job back to Rattay and say it never really was taken away from him.

The 49ers have to find out what the rookie can do. That's what this move is about, Nolan said. But that's not to say he doesn't feel Smith is ready for the challenge.

"I think the rook is doing an excellent job," Nolan said. "All four (quarterbacks) are handling the situation well, but the young guy is certainly being tested from the standpoint of attention."

So, is Smith meeting expectations? Is he exceeding them?

"In the long term, obviously, my expectations are to get better and better as we grow," Nolan said. "But as far as where we started and where we are now, (Smith) has not done anything to lead me to believe that he hasn't met our expectations. He's very poised. He commands the huddle, commands the line of scrimmage, throws a nice ball, he's just getting better and better. As much as anything, I like the way the coach/player relationship is going at that position in particular because all four quarterbacks are getting better all the time outside the competition as well."

But inside the competition, the 49ers have made a debatable move, handing a rookie the starting job over an incumbent veteran starter before he clearly has proven – to insiders and outsiders alike – that he's the best man for the job.


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