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DURING a break between practices in the first week of training camp, quarterback Alex Smith, the first pick of the 2005 draft, walked slowly toward a wooden bench outside the 49ers' locker room and sat down. He had black sandals on his feet, a large ice pack on his surgically repaired right shoulder and a disbelieving smile on his face.
"I never in a million years envisioned it would go like this," he said of the struggle that has marked his brief NFL career. "When I left Utah early, I did so because I felt there was nothing left for me to accomplish [after leading the Utes to an undefeated season in 2004]. I could have gone back for another year, but I really felt I had hit this pinnacle and was ready to take that next step in my development and get some NFL coaching. I was 20 years old and had a lot in front of me. That's what was in my head: I'm going to develop and have a long career ahead of me."
Smith may yet develop and have a long career, but it's hard to believe much more of it will be in San Francisco. Coach Mike Nolan announced in late August that sixth-year journeyman J.T. O'Sullivan will be the starter when the 49ers open the season on Sept. 7 against the Cardinals, all but signaling an end to the Alex Smith Era after three seasons. Smith, whom the Niners signed to a contract that paid him $24 million in guarantees, was 11--19 as a starter. In seven games before being sidelined by a separated shoulder after Week 10 last season, he threw two touchdown passes and four interceptions and had a passer rating of 57.2. Smith looked uneven in the first three preseason games this summer.
Nolan says Smith remains in the team's plans, but "right now," he adds, O'Sullivan has a better command of the offense and gives the 49ers the best chance to win. The mere fact that Smith failed to beat out a player who has never started an NFL game, has only 26 career pass attempts and was waived or let go by seven other teams does not speak well for how Smith is viewed within the organization—particularly after new offensive coordinator Mike Martz stated early in camp that Smith needed to show more grit and resolve to be successful. "He's got a real decision to make," Martz said. "I told him [that putting the starting job up for competition] will either destroy him or it will make him. He's got the physical ability, so he's either going to have to establish that resolve and toughness and confidence that nobody can ever take from him, or he'll doubt himself the rest of his career and he'll never make it.... This game will humble you, and he hasn't been humbled yet."
At the same time that Martz questioned Smith, the respected coordinator admitted that few highly drafted quarterbacks have faced the adversity Smith has. The 24-year-old has entered every season with a new coordinator, a different No. 1 wide receiver (whose talent often didn't warrant the designation) and an offensive line that has been in a state of flux because of injuries and poor performance.
O'Sullivan won the job largely because he was familiar with Martz's offense, having served under him as a backup when both were in Detroit last season. A 2002 sixth-round pick by the Saints out of UC Davis, he has appeared in five NFL games, but Martz, who praises O'Sullivan's vision and release, has no fear of going with an untested trigger man after tutoring the likes of Kurt Warner, Trent Green and Jon Kitna—undrafted or late-round picks who traveled the back roads to success.
The Niners' special teams are solid, and the defense, which was good last season, was upgraded by the signing of free-agent end Justin Smith and the return of linebacker Manny Lawson from knee surgery. So it's not a reach to say that their season, as well as Nolan's future as coach, ride on the play of the quarterback. That J.T. O'Sullivan would be that quarterback is something the Niners could not have imagined.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP WITH 2007 STATISTICS COACH MIKE NOLAN (16--32 in NFL), fourth season with 49ers
Isaac BRUCE [New