Temptation of Alex creating QB dilemma

Alex Smith is waiting in the wings, but that's where the high-priced rookie will remain at least another week as the 49ers go with Ken Dorsey again at quarterback against the Tennessee Titans. The situation has evolved into a dilemma for coach Mike Nolan, who's eager to get Smith back in the QB saddle so that he can learn to ride an offense at the NFL level. But Nolan's not about to knock Dorsey down a notch after he revived the offense during last week's near miss vs. NFC frontrunner Seattle.

Entering that game, it appeared Dorsey was just keeping the position warm another week while Smith shook off the rust from a knee injury that forced him to miss three games.

But the view had changed coming out of a narrow 27-25 loss to the Seahawks during which Dorsey had perhaps the finest performance of his career. He finished with a 101.1 quarterback rating and almost led the 49ers all the way back from 15-point deficit entering the fourth quarter.

Despite that fine effort, the Temptation of Alex remained. Nolan was undecided earlier this week whether Dorsey would continue as the starter. At 2-8, the 49ers are already playing for the future, and the team considered going back to Smith, the No. 1 overall draft selection who had assumed the starting role before he was injured last month.

"In talking with Alex and his coaches, he said that he felt a little rusty," Nolan said. "I don't want to put him in there quite yet, because I'm still on the fence. If we're a healthy football team, then Alex is the guy for the future and I'd like to see him getting those reps. Right now, we're still in a situation where I want to go with what's best for our team."

As opposed to going with what's not best for the team?

"Ken did a good job in the game the other day, and I think that's what's best," Nolan said. "So that's the route we'll go this week. It will be a week-to-week thing."

Dorsey earned himself another week at the helm with smooth and efficient direction of the offense against Seattle. He completed 18 of 29 passes for a career-high 249 yards, and his 22-yard scoring strike to Brandon Lloyd in the fourth period ended San Francisco's drought of 15 quarters without a touchdown. It was the second-highest passing total of the season for a San Francisco quarterback, and the first time in the past six weeks that the 49ers finished a game with more than 86 net yards passing.

That stretch began Oct. 9 with Smith making his first career start in place of veteran Tim Rattay, who later was shipped to Tampa Bay before the Oct. 18 NFL trade deadline. Since then, the 49ers have had a different starter at quarterback three times because of injuries.

In his first action this season, Dorsey led the 49ers to a 15-10 upset of Tampa Bay on Oct. 30, despite passing for just 40 yards in a conservative attack.

But he sprained his left ankle late in the fourth quarter and missed the next two games. Dorsey got another chance as the starter last week after third-stringer Cody Pickett produced a quarterback rating of 28.3 in losses to the New York Giants and Chicago. Pickett completed just one pass against the Bears, a franchise low, and the 49ers finished with just 114 net yards passing in his two starts.

Dorsey came out throwing the next week against Seattle, completing four of his first five passes and directing San Francisco to 336 yards of offense. The 49ers, ranked last in the NFL in total offense, had averaged 174.3 yards over their previous six games. Their highest output during that stretch was the Dorsey-led 208-yard effort against Tampa Bay.

Dorsey is no dummy. He knows the position ultimately belongs to Smith. But that doesn't mean he can't play with it a while and give coaches and teammates something to think about.

"Obviously, Alex is the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, and I'll support him any way I can, whether it's with him starting or not," Dorsey said. "I really feel that way. I feel like I'm in his corner as much as he's in my corner. The way I look at it right now is that my future is here as a 49er, be it in any capacity. Any way it shakes out, I love being here, I love playing for this team and I love doing whatever I can to help us win."

That said, Dorsey isn't backing down from his chance to get a stranglehold on the position, be it temporary or not. After the offense worked out the kinks in the first three quarters against Seattle, Dorsey looked poised and confident while leading the 49ers to touchdowns twice in the fourth quarter.

"A lot of things started to come together and we think we're moving in the right direction now," Dorsey said. "I'm excited for the opportunity to keep improving and stay out on the field. Now I can start to get into a little bit of a groove, just kind of feeling the offense out and everything, and have a little bit of an idea of what to expect. Any time you're a young quarterback and you get to go on the field and get a lot of reps, that makes the biggest difference in the world right there."

Smith, meanwhile, isn't exactly making a fuss about getting back in the lineup. He says his right knee is "close" to 100 percent now after he strained ligaments on Oct. 23 and, while expressing disappointment, Smith didn't make any assertions he should be playing instead of Dorsey.

"I'm still kind of getting a feel for it," Smith said. "I want to make sure I'm totally 100 percent before I get back in there. I'm not to the point where (Nolan) thought that it was good enough. I guess he felt I needed another week of practice and a little more time."

Is that how Nolan really feels? He's not saying. But he does seem to be swayed by Dorsey's fine performance last week.

When asked directly if Smith would start another game before the end of the year – the 49ers have five left after Sunday – Nolan said that still is yet to be determined.

"We'll let each week dictate that," he said. "On one hand, I hope so, and on the other hand, I hope not. It's kind of a double-edged sword. I want Ken to perform well, too.

"There are 10 other guys on that offense that get on the field and everybody on this football team wants to win. That's their goal and I'm not going to change that goal. One player is not going to take us to the promised land. I expect that Alex will be a part of that in the future, but on the way there I have to think about our football team first. And that weighs heavy on my mind as far as where we're at and who's going to do that for our team. The team is bigger than the individual, but certainly Alex is a good player and I want him there."

Just not quite yet. And perhaps, even longer than that.


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