Smith's status not so sure for Sunday

The Alex Smith Comeback took a detour Wednesday as the 49ers returned to full-scale preparation for Sunday's return to action against the New York Giants. Just when it appeared it was all-systems-go for Smith to get back in the saddle as the starting signal-caller, he might not be ready to make it back this week after all.

Smith was only a limited participant in Wednesday's practice session, watching from the back of the huddle while Trent Dilfer ran the offense during team drills.

When asked why this was so, Smith stumbled through a response that hardly gave much clarity to the situation.

"Trainers, coaches myself … it's not quite ready to go today," Smith said. "It's tough to say right now. It's tough to say how I feel right now and how I'm going to feel later on in the week. It's hard to tell."

Smith had been making steady progress in his recovery from the separated shoulder he suffered on the third play from scrimmage in San Francisco's loss to Seattle on Sept. 30. He looked and felt so good throwing the ball on Monday when the 49ers returned from a three-day bye weekend that doctors gave him clearance to return to practice Wednesday.

But it turned out to be a return with restrictions, and the way Smith made it sound, it's far from a sure thing that he'll be back behind center this week against the Giants.

"Right now, it's just day-to-day as far as how I'm feeling and going out there and throwing," Smith said.

And that makes Thursday a crucial day of decision for Smith, the first time he will don shoulder pads since Seattle defensive tackle Rocky Bernard drove his right shoulder into the turf at Monster Park, tearing two ligaments that were holding Smith's throwing shoulder together.

"It's hard to tell," Smith reiterated. "If I can come out (Thursday) and get some of the reps and get parts and stuff … It's tough. At least from my perspective, the type of player I feel like I am, it's tough not to get the reps and then go out there and play at a high level. It's tough this way with the limited reps. I'd like to take that mentality and try to get there, but it's pretty much day-to-day right now. It's tough. Maybe (he'll know) tomorrow, maybe Friday. I'm not sure. I don't know what's going to happen."

Smith doesn't know, and the 49ers sure don't know either. While coach Mike Nolan said he's "hopeful" Smith will be able to play, it's really going to depend on what kind of shape his shoulder and arm are in, with team doctors weighing heavy in the decision before Nolan makes the final call.

"If the doctors say he's healthy, that's the decision I make," Nolan said. "I'm not going to pretend to be the doctor. If they say he's healthy, then he's healthy. If he's not healthy, then he won't play. The doctors will call that shot. And the doctors would not tell me he's OK if he wasn't. That typically means he's able to take a blow as well."

Meanwhile, Dilfer is practicing as though he'll be the starter again, which suddenly looks like it may be the strongest likelihood, even though the 49ers will do everything possible to get Smith back in that position.

"I have to go with that mindset," said Dilfer, who is playing in real games for the first time since 2005. "Any time the starter is hurt and you're in this position, you have to prepare as you're the starter and you have to go with that mindset. If I didn't, I think I'd be cheating myself and cheating this football team."

And Dilfer, of course, as Smith's No. 1 sponsor, made sure to put in a few good words for the younger quarterback getting back sooner rather than later.

"He's one of the toughest people I've ever been around," Dilfer said. "He's not going to be afraid of getting hit. He never has been. That's the last thing you have to worry about with him. He's going to approach this thing with great intensity, with a great desire to get back on the football field and he'll take it as a challenge to get back up from it."

And so he is. But just don't expect any answers right away regarding his status this week. Or maybe even tomorrow or the next day.

What will get Smith back on the field by Sunday? That remains a considerable gray area with kickoff in New York just three days away.

"A combination of things," Smith said. "How I'm feeling. How doctors test it out. We'll see. It's tough to say right now."

Stay tuned.

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