Martz will make final call on 2008 QB starter

The 49ers' brain trust made it clear last week that there will be open competition this year for the team's starting quarterback position. On Tuesday, after hiring Mike Martz as offensive coordinator, the 49ers also made it clear Martz will be the man that ultimately decides who'll be that starter. And Martz, for his part, made it clear he won't be playing any favorites when making that decision.

Even after his lost 2007 season, Alex Smith still is regarded as San Francisco's franchise quarterback. But, unlike the past two seasons, he won't just be handed the starting role at that position.

The team is currently working on a new deal to bring back veteran Shaun Hill, who can become an unrestricted free agent at the end of February, and also will consider bringing in another veteran to compete for the job, as Trent Dilfer did last year. That veteran could again be Dilfer, but it is unclear where - and if - Dilfer fits into the team's plans in 2008.

Dilfer still has one year remaining on his contract with the team that calls for him to earn a base salary of $1 million next season. Regarding Dilfer, 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan said, "We still have to sit down and address the Trent Dilfer issue. He has value, there's no doubt about it. It's just one of those things that we will sit down and talk with the position coaches about some of the older players. If we are in the draft and there's a darn good quarterback sitting there, we're going to take him."

As Hill flourished during a late-season opportunity, coach Mike Nolan indicated several times that he would be given an opportunity to compete in open competition for the starting job should he return in 2008. McCloughan, on the day last week when he was introduced as San Francisco's new general manager, made that official when he was asked point-blank if Smith was still the team's starting quarterback.

"Alex will be in competition to be the starting quarterback," said McCloughan, who played a major role in the decision to select Smith with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft. "Going into training camp, our whole idea is to get as much competition at each position that we can. I think it makes a player better. It makes the team morale and chemistry better because who wins the job plays on the field. There's no shortcuts with coach Nolan. Whoever wins that job at any position will be the starter."

Nolan, now that he has one of the most innovative minds of this NFL era running his offense, said Tuesday that's one decision he plans to hand off to Martz, a noted quarterback guru who guided the St. Louis Rams to a top-5 NFL finish in total offense seven consecutive seasons.

When asked who will decide whom San Francisco's starting quarterback will be next season, Nolan responded, "Mike is the expert on quarterback play, let's not kid ourselves."

Nolan went on: "Whoever's going to compete on the field, the winner's going to take the job. Whoever the backup (may) be, I would hope that backup would be that much better than they were this season. As we all know, backups have to play. Whoever that backup is, if he has to play, I'd expect him to play well. Mike's not going to coach just the starter. Mike's going to coach all the quarterbacks. Whether you get to the second or third quarterback, I would expect that quarterback to perform."

Martz said he is impressed by the potential displayed by Smith on film, but like Nolan, he'll be looking for the guy who can produce immediate results in 2008 after San Francisco's offense sank to last in the 2007 NFL rankings while starting four different quarterbacks.

When asked which quarterback's style he prefers between Smith and Hill - who at this point appear to be the frontrunners in that "open competition" at QB this year - Martz gave a simplistic yet telling answer.

"Whoever completes the ball the most," Martz replied.

Martz has been given credit for developing an unknown quarterback, Kurt Warner, into a two-time NFL MVP and also developing unheralded quarterbacks such as Trent Green, Marc Bulger and Jon Kitna into quality starters. The 49ers are hoping he can do the same with Smith, who still possesses the most raw ability and potential of any of San Francisco's current QB candidates.

Martz will be Smith's fourth offensive coordinator in his four NFL seasons, but the 49ers are looking for the veteran coach to provide some of the stability that Smith enjoyed under offensive coordinator Norv Turner in 2006. Turner left in 2007 to become head coach in San Diego and San Francisco's offense fell apart under the direction of first-time NFL coordinator Jim Hostler, who was fired after the season.

Martz said he is eager to work with and bring out the best in San Francisco's quarterbacks.

"From what I've seen from Alex and Shaun, it's exciting," Martz said. "There's great potential there. They're both accurate and I think Alex, watching him through the year, is very impressive. We just have to get everybody on the same page and tie the pieces together to get things rolling in the passing game and the running game. That's what I'm excited about."

Martz went on about coming in as a new OC to work with new quarterbacks: "You just wipe the board clean and start off from taking the ball from center, all those things you do every year with quarterbacks. I don't care how long you've been in the league. You coach them that way from the details, then you just move on and get to the point where they have such a great grasp and feel for what you're doing. And you can't do that by jumping ahead, so it's going to be very basic and simple in the beginning."

But by the end of August, the basics will have become the finer details of Martz's intricate and innovative offense. And the guy in charge of running that operation at QB? That will be Martz's call.

As his track record shows, Martz usually makes the right one.

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