Dilfer the right choice

Does Alex Smith give the 49ers their best shot at victory as the team's starting quarterback? No doubt about it. Is it the right decision to go with Trent Dilfer as the starter instead of Smith when the Niners return to action Sunday against the New York Giants? Absolutely.

That became pretty clear the past couple of days at 49ers headquarters as Smith walked around with a hangdog expression on his face, either lacking confidence that he's ready to get the job done or feeling traces of disappointment that the team is not convinced of the same.

After initially hedging during his media briefing Thursday afternoon – when he repeatedly said that Smith was "healthy" and is "probable" for Sunday's game, but evaded questions regarding who would be the starter – Nolan gathered 49ers beat writers again a few minutes later and gave the official word, as he put it, "rather than playing head-coach games."

Thanks, coach.

"Trent will start the game," Nolan said during his impromptu second briefing. "I don't know where Alex will be listed yet. Alex is healthy, and just because of all things – yesterday's practice, today's practice, the way everything went – that's the way we'll approach the game. Alex will be healthy for this game, but in what capacity, we'll wait and see."

OK, so we get it. Smith is healthy. Then why won't he be trotting out with the offense to take the opening snaps this weekend at The Meadowlands?

Because Nolan is doing the right thing for both Smith and his team, that's why.

Nolan explained his decision with good reasoning Thursday, saying, "I'm not sure right now that the confidence in Alex or my confidence in watching him right now are where it needs to be. The guy that plays that role, that plays that position, as all quarterbacks will tell you, they need to be certain about what they're doing … Otherwise, it's not the right decision."

Nolan went on, hammering home the point that physically, Smith could play. "I think he's fully healthy," the coach said. "As you watch somebody, you can tell if they're confident and sure what they're doing and they're throwing with that 100-percent certainty like they were when they have nothing wrong with them. But when you're kind of just throwing with a little … when you feel it out when you're doing it … that touchy-feely thing I'm not big on. And I just sense a little bit of that in watching. I know (Smith) wants to play in the worst way, but I believe he understands this is the right decision."

It's the right decision because, even though Smith has made a strong and swift recovery from the separated shoulder he suffered on Sept. 30, he needs more time to filter back into the role of being the team's starting quarterback.

If Smith is so healthy, why was he just participating in a limited fashion during practices this week, standing in the background while Dilfer ran the offense during team drills?

It's because the 49ers have a game – an important game – to prepare for this week, and Smith hadn't taken an organized practice snap in the previous 16 days before Wednesday. It was good and all seeing Smith make rapid progress during the bye week – making an injury that could have kept him out for months reduced to one that would keep him out only for weeks – but it was hardly getting-ready-for-a-game pressure Smith was putting on his injured joint.

That pressure arrived in full force this week, not even giving Smith any time to get the rust off or to get back in sync or rhythm with the players around him.

But that's where Dilfer is, finally, after two full weeks of practice as the starter.

"You always want to be part of the solution, and this is an opportunity to be part of the solution on the football field," Dilfer said Thursday, long after he'd been informed by Nolan that he'd be making his second consecutive start Sunday. "I'm very excited about the opportunity and feel that I'm very, very prepared and have established a pretty good rhythm with the guys and it shows by practice. We've had (several) practices now since the Baltimore game and they've been as crisp as we've had all year."

And everybody knows the kind of problems San Francisco's 32nd-ranked offense had during the Baltimore game, not to mention every game before it. Why throw Smith back into that when he really needs at least another week to work back into the system?

From varying viewpoints, Dilfer and Smith came to the same conclusion.

"Coach Nolan did the best thing and just made a decision and I think it's best for all parties," Dilfer said.

Said Smith, "It's disappointing. I've been with this team for a while now and to see another guy in your huddle, it's a strange feeling. There is a fine line for going out there and being competitive and trying to play. It's a chance for Trent to go out there and lead this team. I know he'll be ready.

"At the same time, it's tough because I'm competitive and I think I can do it. But to not have practiced for a couple of weeks and go out there and not be 100 percent confident in your arm and what it can do, it probably wouldn't be the best thing for this team in the big picture."

Or the small picture, for that matter. If Smith doesn't think he should play this week … well, he's the one guy who ought to know.


Niners Digest Top Stories