What becomes of Alex?

Does Alex Smith have a future with the 49ers? "I'm not thinking about that right now," Smith said Saturday during his first official day as the team's non-starting quarterback for the regular-season opener. But it's certainly not too soon for others to start thinking about it as Smith will begin his fourth NFL season as a backup – a dubious distinction for a former No. 1 overall draft pick.

Since the NFL merged with the old American Football League to conduct a common draft in 1967, 16 quarterbacks have been selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. When Sept. 7 rolls around and J.T. O'Sullivan starts as planned against the Arizona Cardinals, Smith will become just the fourth of those quarterbacks not to start the opener in their fourth season for the team that drafted them, joining a list that includes Tim Couch in Cleveland, Jeff George in Indianapolis and Steve Bartkowski in Atlanta.

And those four quarterbacks – along with all the others – all ended up starting at least nine games in that fourth season. Smith's a long way from starting nine games this year.

And now, the "bust" word is whistling in the wind around Smith and the 49ers louder than it ever has before.

After announcing that O'Sullivan would be his starter come September – a logical decision considering what transpired this summer – coach Mike Nolan quickly was asked if he was concerned that Smith would be considered a bust because he isn't starting for the 49ers this season.

"Well, the perception will be wrong if that is the perception," Nolan replied. "That's all I can say. It would be wrong."

Why would it be wrong? After all, what has Smith done for the 49ers lately? What, in fact, has he ever really done for them at all?

"Well, because I think he is getting better and better right now," was Nolan's second reply. "He needs consistency and continuity, which we all do, and he's getting that right now. He's getting a very detailed offense from a detailed coach and I think he performs very well in that environment. I believe it's just not accurate to say that about Alex."

Nolan went on, sounding a bit like he did earlier in Smith's career when just about everything that came out of Nolan's mouth about Smith was golden praise.

"I've got a lot of confidence in Alex," Nolan said. "I think he's matured a lot this year, and I'm encouraged by the things he's done. We want to play our best players that give us the best chance to win, but that doesn't mean if you are not at that point, at this point in your career that you are a bust. That's not true at all. Alex has a lot of ability, a lot of potential, and I think he is going to be a very good quarterback in this league. He's just not there at this point."

The question is when he will be there. And with what team.

Will it be the 49ers? That certainly is something that can be debated, but nobody really can answer that question now. As Smith says, "It's too far down the line. When the time comes, I will deal with that. I am focused on the here and now."

The here and now has Smith slated to be a backup for the first time when healthy since his rookie season. The thing about it is, it's where Smith belongs. He's the 49ers' second-best quarterback right now. In the new offense of Mike Martz, O'Sullivan simply beat him out with superior performance.

It was sometimes painful to watch Smith struggling through the summer to find a rhythm in Martz's detailed system. He's without question still the most physically talented quarterback on the San Francisco roster, but that talent hasn't translated to consistent performance on the field, and detailed consistency is what Martz's complex system is all about.

Some observers around the team believe this is just what Smith needs – an opportunity to step back and soak in the system a while longer, giving him the time he needs to truly absorb it. Many figure he will get his shot at significant playing time sooner or later this season, whether it's because O'Sullivan doesn't play well or because he gets hurt.

But what if neither of those things happens? What if O'Sullivan is just the right guy at the right time to help lift the San Francisco offense from its woeful performance of recent seasons? And what if Smith holds a clipboard all or most of the season?

Smith's cap figure for the 2008 season already is about 20 times higher than O'Sullivan's. And next year – not to mention the year after that – Smith's base salary balloons into the stratosphere.

Smith is due a non-guaranteed base salary of $9.625 million in 2009, at which point he already will have been paid the $24 million in guaranteed money that was part of the $49.5 million package he signed before his first training camp.

That's star quarterback money. As of today, Smith's not even a starter.

If he expects to be around to earn that paycheck, he's got a lot of work to do. The 49ers can't pay him that kind of coin next year unless he's their No. 1 guy. That means there's a definite possibility the one-time franchise quarterback, still only 24 years old, might not even be a 49er next year.

There's also a possibility Smith won't be with the team when the season begins, or after the October trade deadline. But both of those possibilities seem remote. The 49ers aren't thinking of dumping Smith this season, even though they could save almost $1 million against their cap if they did so before the season started.

And Smith said he isn't at a point where he'd think about talking to his agent about finding a change of venue. Neither side is ready or prepared to part ways.

"It's not even in my thinking right now," Smith said. "I don't know if it would come to that. Right now, I am thinking about my role and what I need to do – just continue to come to work."

But the more Smith rides the sideline this season the more he'll become a symbol of what's gone wrong for the 49ers during the Nolan era.

To his credit, Smith has not lost confidence in his ability and continues to take the tough questions head on, just like he always has. He doesn't complain about not getting a fair shot. He doesn't need to prove to himself that he can succeed as a starting quarterback, and said he can use the latest setback as motivation in a positive way.

"You have to use it as that," Smith said. "You have to use it as motivation and continue to push yourself and get better. Prove to people … It's hard. This is a new role for me. I get to watch another guy play. I can't let that stop me. I can't let that get to me. I am going to continue to work and continue to get better with this."

But he's clearly running out of time. The "continue to work and continue to get better" mantra is getting a little old. The 49ers have been there, done that with Smith. They need results. And now a quarterback named O'Sullivan is going to get an opportunity to produce them.

Smith? He takes a step back, and now the question whether he'll ever make good with the 49ers will linger until he gets another chance to do so - if that chance ever comes.

"I take it as what it is," Smith said. "J.T. is our starter and I'm the two. I'm going to continue to get ready and prepare knowing that I am one play away. I'm familiar with that and have obviously gone through it and have experience last year with that. Things can change fast, so that's the way I'm taking it."

Smith has got that right. Things can change fast, and for him they just did.

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