Niners shoot down notion of switch to Dilfer

It was the first question thrown at Mike Nolan at his Monday news conference: Might it be better for Alex Smith and the 49ers for backup Trent Dilfer to start at quarterback this week to teach Smith? Nolan and Smith both shot down that idea immediately, and so did Dilfer, who says he has been down this road before in Seattle and is quite sure Smith is right where the 49ers want and need him to be.

And that's starting behind center again Thursday night when the 49ers face their rematch against the Seahawks in Seattle, taking every snap just as Smith has done in every game this season.

Smith, after a solid start to his second NFL season, is in the midst of a sophomore slump that was magnified during his subpar performance in Sunday's 30-19 upset loss to the Green Bay Packers. It was the third consecutive game Smith finished with a passer rating of 50.1 or lower.

That has led to a perception from some viewpoints that Smith could benefit from a step back, a week or two on the sidelines, and both he and the 49ers could benefit by the veteran-ready Dilfer stepping in to add his experience and savvy to an offense that has been sputtering.

Dilfer heard the same sort of talk during the spring and training camp this summer - that perhaps the 49ers would be a better team with him starting and Smith learning this year - and his response to that was the same Monday afternoon as it has been since he joined the team in May.

"When the San Francisco 49ers win the Super Bowl again, Alex Smith is going to be the quarterback," Dilfer said. "It isn't going to be me, and it's not going to be somebody else. All of what we're doing right now is for that. You want to win as many games as you can in the process. But every snap he takes, every experience he has, everything he has to overcome, is a building block in the overall success of the franchise."

That's taking the long view of the big picture. What about the short view?

Taking Smith out of the lineup this week or beyond, Dilfer said, "Would do nothing for (Smith). I don't think it would set him back, because he's so mentally tough. But it would not benefit this football team."

Dilfer, in his 13th NFL season, has demonstrated at age 34 he still has the stuff to be a competent starter over the short term, if not the long haul, and he has expressed a passion to play that still burns within.

But that's not the role he signed up for when he joined the team. He's Smith's backup, and he knows his place. Dilfer almost went as far to defend Smith on Monday, saying that a quarterback can actually play well but the perception is he played poorly because he's so dependent on other players around him.

"Alex has played really good football this year," Dilfer said. "And he's gotten better each week. If you were going to tell me he would be where he is right now at the beginning of the year and what I would feel about that, I would say that would be great. The things he's doing right now, if you would have told me he'd be doing them, I'd have been ecstatic.

"He is the best I have ever been around at taking a ton of information, digesting it, and then going out on Sundays and then executing it. But as a whole, we haven't played great. When you don't play well as a whole, the guy that it reflects the worst upon is the quarterback. Alex, unfortunately, is learning that the hard way. And because of that, you get murmurs of, ‘Maybe this should happen, and maybe that should happen.' And it's not fair to him."

Smith's certainly not ready to take a step back. He said after Sunday's loss - during which he threw two second-half interceptions and completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes for the first time this season - that, while his statistics might not suggest it, he is not playing that bad.

And as far as benefiting from watching Dilfer play, Smith said on Monday, "I don't think I'm to the point right now where I'm … I know the game yesterday was frustrating, but I feel like I'm continuing to see things at a better level than I ever have, understanding things better than I ever have. So I don't think that would be the best thing for me."

Dilfer, who was Baltimore's starting quarterback in Super Bowl XXXV and won four postseason games in 2001 for the world-champion Ravens, was in a similar situation during his four seasons in Seattle from 2001-2004.

The Seahawks were attempting to develop Matt Hasselbeck as their franchise quarterback, but there were struggles along the way. Dilfer started four games as Hasselbeck's backup in 2001, compiling a quarterback rating of 92.0 to Hasselbeck's 70.9.

That performance helped make Dilfer the starter entering the 2002 season, when he started six games, and a quarterback controversy ensued while Hasselbeck was taking steps toward becoming a Pro Bowl starter who would lead the Seahawks to the Super Bowl last season while setting a franchise single-season record with a quarterback rating of 98.2.

"You can multiply what's going on right now by 50, and that's what I went through in Seattle with Matt, because Matt did play poorly for a while - much worse than Alex has done at any time," Dilfer said. "And I was playing good in the games that I played. And it was, like, ‘Why aren't you playing?' And my point then was, it's because I'm the backup quarterback and this guy is going to be a great player. It's just going to take time.

"With Alex, it's easy, because he is a very good player right now and the sky's the limit. I tell Alex all the time that he has the potential to be much better than Matt. And that's saying something about one of my best friends - a guy that's been to the Pro Bowl, has been to the Super Bowl. … When you evaluate a quarterback, you evaluate him on things he can control, and the things that Alex control, he's dong a very good job at."

Of course, as far as who plays quarterback this week against the Seahawks or beyond, it really only matters what one person thinks: Nolan.

And Nolan made it sound like a temporary switch to Dilfer would go against everything the 49ers have been attempting to build and accomplish since the day Nolan arrived to take control of the team.

"I do not consider sitting Alex for that, because we know what we set out to do when we set out to do it," Nolan said. "Alex is maturing all the time, but at the same time, he is a young player that has an awful lot to offer. That would be the reason not to.

"I'll reflect on the whole thought process of us building this thing. Part of that thought process was that we had to bite the bullet when we lost a few players this offseason. In order to get everything right, in order to make Alex the best quarterback you can make him, I think there's a greater setback in doing something like that with him. I think Trent Dilfer, as competitive as he is and as much as he would love to play, would be the first to say, ‘Coach, bad decision. You've got this young kid here that is going to be a hell of a quarterback. Make him learn.' That's the reason for that."

A few hours later, Dilfer - using a different set of words - said exactly that. There is no quarterback controversy in 49erland, and there's not going to be one. Not this season, at least.


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