McCloughan: Nolan safe for now; but Smith ..?

In a straightforward and honest appraisal of where the 49ers are today and might be tomorrow, general manager Scot McCloughan tackled several issues Wednesday afternoon regarding the present and future status of head coach Mike Nolan and quarterback Alex Smith, both of whom enter the 2008 season under the microscope but with each possessing a different level of comfort within the organization.

Let's start with Nolan first, because he's the guy who likely could be gone first if catastrophe strikes early and San Francisco's season begins heading haywire before the leaves begin changing colors in early October.

When the conversation got around to Nolan – the man who actually hired McCloughan as the team's personnel chief during San Francisco's heady re-organizing days of early 2005 – McCloughan backed his man but also let on that he's no dummy GM. McCloughan well realizes what happens later will be a result of what happens now as the course of this crucial 2008 season plays out.

When asked if Nolan's job is in jeopardy – as many believe since Nolan enters his fourth season as San Francisco's coach with 16-32 record (and .333 winning percentage) to show for his time with the 49ers – McCloughan quickly retorted in his rapid-fire style.

"I wouldn't say jeopardy," McCloughan said. "I think we're all under fire from the standpoint we need to win. That's what you get measured by in the NFL. I wouldn't pinpoint one guy that's under more pressure than another guy."

Then again, McCloughan just signed a new contract with the team after being promoted to GM in January. Nolan, who signed a five-year deal when he took over as 49ers head honcho in 2005, wasn't given any kind of contract extension or assurances he'll be part of the brain trust after this season.

Or beyond October, for that matter, as the clamor is rising in some circles.

When asked if Nolan could be ousted if the 49ers – who lost eight consecutive games after a 2-0 start last year – were to get off to, say, a stumbling 1-4 start, McCloughan responded, "I mean, I can't answer that right now. That's looking out into the future. We're planning on getting to a 3-1, 4-1 start and go from there. … We're living week to week, and that's what you do in the NFL. We'll address it as we go through it. I don't want to do ifs and buts and all that, because it's not worth it right now."

Notice that McCloughan didn't answer "No" when it was suggested Nolan could get the early boot if San Francisco's losing ways continue. The "week to week" existence sounded a bit ominous, too. But when asked if his "week to week" comment is an indication Nolan indeed could be fired during the season, McCloughan stood solidly behind his coach and former boss.

"I'm not saying that at all," McCloughan said. "I'm saying we're going week to week because we've got to address … if we have issues going on that aren't positive, address what's the reason they're not working. No one's approaching this season that anybody's in trouble or anybody's going to get fired. It's not that way all.

"There's nothing pinpointing Mike Nolan as being in trouble this year going into it. He's the head coach and he's going to be the head coach."

But Smith now is the former starting quarterback who's no longer the starting quarterback. And in some of the strongest statements yet to come from organizational officials, McCloughan gave veiled indications that Smith – the No. 1 overall selection in the 2005 draft and the team's posterboy franchise quarterback of the past three seasons – may no longer be the team's quarterback of the future now that he has been beaten out by journeyman J.T. O'Sullivan to begin the regular season.

McCloughan, who played a major role in the organization selecting Smith with that No. 1 overall pick 3½ years ago, admitted he was surprised that Smith didn't prevail over O'Sullivan and Shaun Hill in the "open competition" this year to become the team's 2008 starter.

"I would say surprised, yes," McCloughan said. "Am I disappointed? None whatsoever. I think that you wouldn't have gone into this last offseason thinking that our starting quarterback would be on the street. I don't think you'd find one team that would say that. … I was planning on (Smith) being the starter, most definitely."

McCloughan was quick to say he felt Smith got his equal shot at the role this year and it was a fair fight that determined O'Sullivan as the starter. That said, the GM isn't sure San Francisco's most talented quarterback will be starting for the team Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, and isn't even sure today if O'Sullivan's the team's best option at the position.

"From a personnel standpoint, no," McCloughan said. "But I'm never 100 percent positive on the coaches' decisions because I'm not in the room every day. From a pure talent standpoint, I see something different. But that doesn't matter. You've got to go out there with the guy that understands the system, that knows how to work the system better.

"That's not a knock against our guys that were here. It goes to show, hey, we brought a quarterback in that fits the kind of system that we're looking to run, and he showed during the offseason and preseason that he's getting better with the system and it was working for him. When it's said and done, we've got to go with what we feel gives us the best chance to win on Sunday. That's what we did. We've got to put the best out there. The fans deserve to see what gives us the best chance to win."

Will Smith ever again be that guy? The money the 49ers gave Smith in 2005 – a $49.5 million deal with $24 million of it guaranteed – and the money they are giving him now no longer enter into the evaluation equation.

"The money doesn't come into it," McCloughan said. "If it's a mistake, it's a mistake. But you can't be stubborn about it. (That's) not to say that Alex's career is done here at all. Or anywhere else. You couldn't have told me a year ago that J.T. O'Sullivan was going to be our starting quarterback now. So things will happen."

So where does Smith's career with the 49ers go from here? That now is on the front-burner of the great unknowns entering San Francisco's 2008 season.

"I don't know. I don't know," McCloughan repeated regarding Smith's direction from this point. "I know the one thing about him, with his age and what he's been through … that's all going to help him for the future. I still think he's going to be a good quarterback in the NFL, and I hope it's here. But in the NFL, you never know."

But there is one thing McCloughan does know: Smith won't be back with the 49ers next year if he's holding a clipboard as the team's backup quarterback. Smith is due a base salary of $9.625 million in 2009, and with his agent, Tom Condon, reportedly not pleased with the way Smith has been handled during his time in San Francisco, it is highly unlikely the Smith camp would be willing to restructure his contract to remain with the team.

When asked if San Francisco's salary cap could absorb Smith's huge salary next year, McCloughan made it clear it would only be if Smith is the team's No. 1 quarterback then that he no longer is today.

"You can't. You just can't," McCloughan said. "At any position, the amount of money we're going to invest in him, it'd have to be proven that he is the guy – we get into the offseason, he's our guy for next year."

And that has San Francisco's quarterback situation looking shaky beyond this season, and really, even before that. Besides Smith's situation, the 49ers also would have to figure out where O'Sullivan fits into the team's future. He's on a one-year deal at the veteran's minimum salary this season, and can't be signed to a contract extension with the 49ers until after free agency begins next year.

"Oh yeah, certainly," McCloughan said. "There's no doubt about it. The one thing that would be great about it is if we're having this discussion at the end of the season about J.T. That means he had a heck of a year for us. That's what we're looking for. That'd be a nice problem to have to worry about knowing that we have to do a new contract with him to keep him a 49er. We're a long way from that right now, but that'd be a nice problem to have."

Right now, the 49ers have enough problems as it is regarding who might be coming or going as the 2008 season approaches.

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