A few minutes into Nolan's opening statement at his late-morning news briefing to begin Minnesota week, the coach announced, "Trent Dilfer will start the game. He's our quarterback."
No news there. Dilfer has started San Francisco's past three games and Smith wasn't expected to play this week as he begins testing his injured throwing wing again before having a medical re-evaluation of his shoulder and forearm at the end of the week.
But when the line of questioning drifted toward reports that Dilfer might take over as the team's regular starting quarterback next year instead of Smith, the No. 1 overall selection in the 2005 draft, the picture began to get a little murky.
"That's just somebody reading into something that I haven't said," said Nolan, who has praised Dilfer's play in recent weeks as some of the best he has seen by a San Francisco quarterback since he joined the team in 2005. "Let's not go there right now, because that's not what I'm saying."
Nolan went on to clarify exactly what he is saying.
"Even when Alex was the quarterback, even when anybody's doing their job, as you will find repeatedly, 100 percent on that mark, I support the guys that are playing and doing their jobs," Nolan continued. "The backup that goes in, it's important to know that they have the head coach's support. I'm not trying to do anything. I do not have an ulterior motive. My motive is to motivate the guys that are on the field."
Smith, who suffered a separated right shoulder during Week 4 against Seattle, hasn't been on the field in a game since San Francisco's shutout loss in their rematch with Seattle on Nov. 12.
It was in the days following that 24-0 blowout that Smith revealed he had been playing in pain since his return three weeks previously and it was adversely affecting his performance. At the same time, it became clear that a communication vacuum had developed between quarterback and coach.
Smith has not played since, and before taking about 20 short tosses Wednesday, had not thrown a football since serving as San Francisco's backup quarterback to Dilfer on Nov. 18 against St. Louis.
Meanwhile, Nolan has become terse with several lines of questioning regarding Smith, from his health status to his future as the team's franchise quarterback.
"When I say Trent gives us our best chance to win," Nolan said, "it's because right now, as a healthy quarterback and what Trent gives us, without question, he gives us our best chance to win. As was evident when Alex was not healthy, he did not. You can read into it, but please don't."
There have been plenty of observers reading plenty into the appearance of a fractured relationship between Nolan and Smith, made stronger by the incertitude of both the quarterback's injury and his possible return this season.
Nolan once again bristled at the suggestion he and Smith are having problems with one another.
"I think our relationship is fine," Nolan said. "I'm the coach. He's the player. But I speak with Alex, I see him. I think a lot more was made of that than has to be. He was disappointed he wasn't playing, he was disappointed the way he was playing when he was playing and we were losing. But outside of that, honest to God, I have no issues.
Nolan went on: "We committed to Alex when we drafted him. All I know is that we do communicate. Was there a little glitch at that one point with communication? Yes, I believe so. It was both sides, believe me. You've got to tell me if it's hurting more than you think. Don't surprise me with it. Otherwise, I can't read your mind. But outside of that, there's no issues there."
But in saying that, it almost sounded like there was an issue there. And when Nolan was subsequently asked about Smith's progress, the coach's response thinly-veiled his disappointment in Smith this season.
"I thought Alex was making progress, up until this year," Nolan said. "With the exception of the (Arizona) game two weeks ago, our offense has sputtered most of the season. Alex was the quarterback for the early part of the season (and) much of those games, we weren't doing very well. Therefore, at that time, Alex wasn't doing very well, obviously, because they have a lot to do with what the offense does. I thought he was making progress. When he gets injured and he's out, then obviously there's not much to say, because he's not."
When asked if, considering everything that has happened, Smith is still the quarterback of this team, Nolan began his reply with, "Well, I would hope he is, sure," and then went on to talk about Smith's substantial progress last year over his dismal rookie season.
"This year, we were very hopeful, and expecting him to do more than that," Nolan said. "It didn't work out that way. Is it all his fault? No, because it takes a lot of people to make it work, and his ineffectiveness, combined with some of the people around him, was a part of it.
Nolan went on: "I'd like to think he's the quarterback of the future, sure, but he's got to get healthy and get back on the field. All the talk about his shoulder and this and that … I'm living in today, to be honest with you. I haven't got time to go there. I can't even go to next week. We've got Minnesota."
And Dilfer will be San Francisco's quarterback against the Vikings. Like Nolan, the 14th-year veteran doesn't look beyond the game in front of him.
"I have a hard time investing energy beyond this afternoon," Dilfer said. "This thing is such a challenge. I told myself when I went to Cleveland (in 2005) I would play every play, every game, as if it's my last."
Sunday's game won't be Dilfer's last. He's likely to start again the next week against the Cincinnati Bengals, and that status could carry over into next season depending on what happens with Smith, whose throwing shoulder and forearm will be re-evaluated at the end of the week with the distinct possibility the 49ers will be shutting him down for the season at that point.
Smith throws; QB starter thrown up for grabs?
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