Smith taking second-team status in stride

Alex Smith couldn't hide his disappointment, and he really didn't even try. For the first time since early in his rookie season, a healthy Smith won't be starting at quarterback for the 49ers when they take to the field for Friday's exhibition opener against the Raiders. In a summer that so far hasn't gone quite as planned for the fourth-year QB, it's just another challenge Smith has to endure.

Smith, of course, has been facing challenges since the moment the 49ers selected him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft. And the status that was thrust upon him three Aprils ago remains part of his burden: Despite the injuries, the team turmoil and lack of talent around him since he arrived, Smith always has that label to live up to.

It seems as though that's getting more difficult than easier along the way as he moves closer to his consequential fourth season with the team.

It certainly doesn't help Smith's pursuit of fulfilling his potential that the 49ers will start journeyman J.T. O'Sullivan - and not Smith, the team's $50 million man, San Francisco's anointed franchise QB - against the Raiders.

When he has been healthy, Smith has started every game for the 49ers - preseason or otherwise - since returning from a knee injury in December of his rocky rookie season. Smith, in fact, became the first quarterback in 49ers history to take every offensive snap in a season during his promising sophomore season of 2006.

But, relatively speaking, it has been downhill for Smith since then. His 2007 season was basically a lost year, doomed by season-ending surgery to repair a separated throwing shoulder, and it shed more doubt on Smith that he'll ever be worthy of his high draft status and the lofty expectations that come with it.

And now this. The 49ers will start their preseason with a guy who has thrown 26 career regular-season passes - completing only half of them - a guy who was brought in by the team this spring with a veteran's minimum salary to serve as insurance as a No. 3 backup.

But now the 49ers are giving O'Sullivan a serious look. And that means Smith will be running with the second team on Friday at Oakland. That's not a status many expected of Smith at this point in the team's quarterback competition.

Alex Smith a second-teamer in August?

Coach Mike Nolan gave logical reasoning for the move - he has seen what Smith and Shaun Hill can do as starters in live game situations, but has yet to see that in person from O'Sullivan - and Smith understands what his coaches are doing. But that doesn't mean he's happily accepting it.

But as Smith always has done, he's taking it in stride. He's not one to pout or start throwing helmets at lockers. That doesn't mean it is sitting well inside the 24-year-old, though.

When SFI asked Smith about his reaction to the move, and suggested that shouldn't he be the starter on Friday, Smith faced the music just like he always has faced the music.

"I try not to get into that," he replied. "It would be easy to get sucked in and get pissed. (But) it is what it is. I'm not sure … obviously, they have their things they're doing upstairs, and that's the way it's going to be done. All I can really worry about are my reps, and that's what I need to do."

It's difficult to gauge if the move to start O'Sullivan is a reflection on Smith's performance so far in training camp, which has been inconsistent and decidedly ragged at times. Smith has been much sharper the past week in camp, but he still is having his struggles picking up the intricacies of Mike Martz's detailed offense.

O'Sullivan played in that system last year when both were with the Detroit Lions and has been much smoother running the offense than either Smith or Hill.

"There's some plays out there I'm more comfortable with than others," Smith said. "And there's stuff that's more foreign, obviously, that I'm not so comfortable with. I'm just trying to get up to speed with that. There's some stuff that's completely different than things I've been taught, so I'm trying to break that and do it the way we want it done here."

Smith is right about one thing: He can't let the latest development at quarterback eat at him or prevent him from doing what he needs to do. He's getting fed a crash course of new offense and needs to learn it and execute it as quickly as he can and then as best he can.

This quarterback competition is far from over. In fact, it only has just begun. The reality says that Smith still is the No. 1 man at the position, it's still his job to lose, and that will be born out over the next two weeks. Are the 49ers trying to light a fire under Smith with this maneuver? Maybe. But either way, he needs to respond.

And the best response would be to come out Friday and play the best darn football of his life, to show that he should be the San Francisco quarterback playing at the start of preseason games instead of the one entering somewhere in the second quarter.

"I have to try to take as much as I can from this and get better from it," Smith said. "I can't worry about all that other stuff. I just try to throw and handle my responsibilities. I've got enough on my plate. I don't need to be worrying about everybody else. I have to try to take as much as I can from this and get better from it."

That about covers it. It's eight days until the 49ers' home exhibition opener against the Green Bay Packers, and the countdown already has begun. If Alex Smith isn't starting for the Niners in that game, then people really can start to wonder.

Niners Digest Top Stories