Who's at QB? Let the camp competition begin

The 49ers are facing plenty of questions entering 2008 training camp, but No. 1 at the top of the list is pretty obvious: Who's going to start at quarterback? With camp set to begin Friday morning with the team's first full-squad practice, the Niners still do not have a defined answer to the QB question, and it's the most consequential issue entering the fourth summer of the Mike Nolan era.

Alex Smith. Shaun Hill. J.T. O'Sullivan. Not necessarily in that order.

One of those three men will lead the 49ers into a do-or-die season for the Nolan regime, and of the many things that must be addressed by the Niners this summer to turn the team into a contender again and end a franchise-worst string of five consecutive losing campaigns, Nolan admits that determining who that man will be is the most important decision he and his staff will make this summer.

"Going into training camp, not knowing all the adversity and the situations that we might face, I'd say yes," Nolan said. "At some point, obviously, we have to make a decision on the quarterback, and I would say, without knowing some of the other situations that we may face, it is a very important decision for this season, no question."

And so it is. As the 49ers enter another summer of trying to get it right - the team now is on a run of a half-dozen of those kind of summers - the QB question is the leading story line of many swirling around a team that is flying below the radar of the NFL consciousness that mostly considers San Francisco, after it's collapse of 2007, an also-ran as the real deal of training camp begins.

That's quite a contrast to this time a year ago, when the 49ers were trendy NFL darlings that many saw as an up-and-coming contender and serious challenger for the NFC West title. But now the bandwagon has emptied, and one of the biggest reasons is the team's situation at quarterback, which was mostly a running joke last year as the 49ers - devastated by injuries at the position - bounced from Smith to an inept Trent Dilfer to a surprising Hill to a mop-up-at-the-end Chris Weinke.

Did someone say Chris Weinke?

Yes, folks, that's how bad it got for the 49ers at the position last year as the retread journeyman, picked up off the street in mid-December, represented the Niners as their starting quarterback in the season finale at Cleveland.

Actually, Weinke didn't look that bad in the season-ending loss, underscoring how bad San Francisco quarterbacks in general - particularly Dilfer - performed during the season.

Smith, before he suffered a serious separated throwing shoulder in Week 4 that later required season-ending surgery, never really got it going in the opening weeks of the season despite leading the team to a 2-1 start. And then, forced back into the lineup a month later with an injured wing, he was terrible in his three post-injury starts, games he probably never should have played.

That shaky performance cost Smith the job - or, at least, opened the competition for others to challenge him - that had been his birthright since the 49ers used the No. 1 overall selection in the 2005 NFL draft to make Smith a multi-millionaire and heap upon him the expectations and responsibilities of being a franchise quarterback at age 21.

Smith is 24 now, and in many ways this is his make-or-break year just as much as it is for the Nolan crew, which must win now after going 16-32 in the three seasons since he became head coach.

There are some out there who want to call - and, in fact, are calling - Smith a bust already, but in truth, that is an unfair and inaccurate characterization. The kid really hasn't had much of a chance to succeed yet, considering the tumult - and lack of talent around him - that Smith and the 49ers have dealt with since he came aboard.

The fact is, Smith has great talent and tremendous upside potential, and he was displaying solid progress in 2006 as a NFL sophomore - becoming the first QB in team history to take every snap in a season - before it all fell apart due to varying circumstances last year.

There's no question, from a pure talent standpoint, that Smith is the best quarterback on the San Francisco roster, and clearly - after making a surprisingly quick return from his recovery - was the team's best and most effective quarterback during San Francisco's spring minicamp and June organized team activities.

But playing quarterback in the NFL isn't all about pure talent and looking good in practice, as the 49ers know all too well. Take Hill, for example. He never looked like much in practice during his first two seasons with the 49ers as the clear No. 3 behind Smith and Dilfer.

Then, when forced into action after injuries to Smith and Dilfer - after not having thrown a regular-season pass in his first five NFL seasons - Hill shocked many observers by coming out firing and leading the 49ers to a 2-0 record as a starter, completing 68.4 percent of his passes and compiling an impressive 101.3 quarterback rating before he, too, was sidelined by injuries.

That rather astonishing performance earned Hill a new contract with the team and a legitimate opportunity to challenge Smith, who never looked comfortable last season under the direction of deposed, one-and-done offensive coordinator Jim Hostler.

The 49ers say that O'Sullivan, who showed promise under new offensive coordinator Mike Martz's tutelage in Detroit last year, also is in the mix of "open competition" at QB this summer, but let's take that for what it is: Talkspeak. Frankly, O'Sullivan is just around to have veteran insurance in the No. 3 role instead of a developing youngster. If he ends up starting at quarterback for reasons other than injury, that means the 49ers have failed miserably at the position.

And that's what this summer is about for the 49ers: Getting it right at quarterback before they can get it right anywhere else.

"Right now, it's a competitive situation because we feel we've got quarterbacks that can all compete for the job and take the job," Nolan said. "So, to stay fair to the entire football team, as far as our goal of winning, it's important that we give them all equal opportunity. If we had one established quarterback, it would be different. But in our case, we do not."

It's now time for someone to step up and get established. Smith is the clear front-runner heading into training camp, which should be a relief to many, but the team will wait to see how both he and Hill - who has proven himself as a gamer - perform during the exhibition season before making a decision.

But as the team's 63rd training camp begins at the Marie P. DeBartolo Centre, it's Smith's job to lose. And that is as it should be.

But now there actually is a possibility he could lose it, which by September - for better or worse - should have the 49ers putting their best face on the field at quarterback since the days gone by that Jeff Garcia manned the position, a time when the Niners still were winning playoff games and NFC West titles before the bottom fell out on the organization, a situation which got the 49ers to where they are today.

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