Rocky relationship takes on whole new dynamic

The 49ers' spin doctors - not to be confused with shoulder doctors - were at it in full force Tuesday, trying to put a pretty face on a relationship that appears scarred for life. In reaction to Alex Smith's comments that Mike Nolan tried to "undermine" him with teammates, both player and coach went into damage control mode, each saying their relationship is "stronger" than that. But is it really?

You've really got to wonder now after the verbal interplay of the past month, which began with Nolan appearing to take thinly-veiled shots at Smith for his inability to perform with an injured throwing wing, or at least failing to inform Nolan how bad the injury really was.

The perceived strained relationship between Nolan and Smith took on a whole new dimension Monday when Smith was leaving the team facility and a reporter approached his car and told him a story was going to be written that some of his teammates had commented on him in a negative way.

Some quick background: Smith, who separated his right shoulder Sept. 30, returned from the injury in late October to play three games, all of in which he was ineffective, and certainly the last of which - Nov. 12 at Seattle - it was obvious he was playing in pain and it was affecting his performance. When Smith finally went public after that game that his shoulder was "killing him," Nolan clearly was perturbed he didn't hear it from the quarterback first.

And several of Nolan's comments regarding the subject suggested he was perturbed that he heard it at all - or that anybody else did.

Here's what Smith was quoted as saying in today's issue of the San Jose Mercury News, inferring that Nolan made Smith not playing with the injury an issue in the 49ers' locker room: "He came out and said some things to the team," Smith said in the story. "It was like he was telling his side of it, and I didn't want to get into it. … That was my biggest concern when he did that: I felt it was trying to undermine me with my teammates. … All of a sudden Nolan spins it as I was making excuses for an injury."

Youch. We could go back and re-visit some of the juicier he-said, he-said comments from both Nolan and Smith since after that Seattle game, but that's not the point here. The point here is that a head coach and his quarterback not only need to be on the same page, but they also need to get along and work together.

Can that ever happen again for Nolan and Smith? It's a question that will be asked in the coming weeks many times in many different ways about a football relationship that by the day is looking more and more like it's destined to be severed at some point in 2008.

The Mercury News article certainly doesn't put that relationship in a favorable light, and to be sure, now that we've had time to reflect on it, Nolan has done a poor job of handling his franchise quarterback since the day in September that Smith was pounded into the turf shoulder-first by Seattle defensive tackle Rocky Bernard.

That's an indictment of Nolan, because one of the most important functions of a head coach is to handle his franchise quarterback. There's no problem if that requires some tough love, but in the space of a month, Nolan - who has plenty of other problems to worry about besides just Smith - has gone from a coach who always had Smith's back to one who rarely has anything positive to say about the QB.

Except Tuesday afternoon, after the Internet had lit up with the story - not to mention more condemnation of the embattled Nolan - and it became spin time again.

"The relationship Alex and I have developed over the past three years is stronger than a negative news story," Nolan said in a statement released by the team late Tuesday afternoon, which also said Smith and Nolan had met and discussed the published story.

"I understand how he can be caught off guard," Nolan continued. "It is a difficult time for Alex. He has not had to deal with an injury that will require surgery before."

This is an equally difficult time for Nolan, who has not had to deal before with the dynamic of problems he has faced this year with his crumbling team. And, let's face it, he is not handling them well.

And Smith? It's clear he's having some "not handling it well" problems, too.

In reference to his brief exchange Monday with a reporter, Smith, also in the statement released by the team, said, "I initially reacted out of frustration based on the questions that were being asked, but the article does not reflect how I truly feel."

Smith went on to say, "I can see how an article like this can be very damaging, but I know my relationships with coach Nolan and my teammates are stronger than that."

But are they? Smith, despite the tumult he has experienced in his three seasons with the 49ers, still is just a 23-year-old youngster, and it's difficult to gauge the level of respect he has with teammates, since he was forced upon them as the No. 1 overall pick golden boy in 2005.

You don't hear anybody in the locker room saying anything negative about Smith. That's something you just don't do about a guy the franchise is being built around.

But if you listen real closely, you can hear them wondering. This has been a lost season for Smith, and when he returns next year after having season-ending shoulder surgery Thursday, it will be Year 4 of the Alex Experiment, and so far the 49ers have very little to show for the $24 million in guaranteed money they have invested in him, with many more millions to come if they decide to keep him around.

And, believe it, that's a decision that will be tossed around in the offseason upheaval to come. After this latest episode, both Smith and Nolan come out looking bad at a time when neither needs more negativity dancing around them.

But there it is, and it just adds to the rising pile. When the 49ers are blown up again this offseason, it will be interesting to see who still is left standing. Certainly, Nolan and/or Smith - as separate entities - figure to be among the survivors.

But Nolan and Smith, standing side by side in unison, ready to make another determined go at putting the team back together?

That's one picture that just keeps getting more and more difficult to envision.

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