When I asked Mike Nolan today whether he and his offensive assistants had settled on a quarterback rotation for training camp, I expected him to say that they had yet to have that meeting. (After all, the guy was zipping around Afghanistan in a Blackhawk helicopter for a week). When he started to answer in the affirmative, I expected him to say that Alex Smith would get the lion's share of the training camp repetitions. Instead, he said the status quo - Smith and Shaun Hill sharing snaps - would continue until the third preseason game on Aug. 21. And that's surprising for several reasons.
You might remember the interview I had with Mike Martz in which he said that he had never before split offseason snaps among his quarterbacks. Martz did say that he was impressed with how much of the playbook Smith and Hill had already absorbed but he also intimated that a true pecking order at quarterback would be coming soon. He also said he had enough information from minicamp and OTAs to decide which of his passers would be atop that pecking order.
Which leads any rational observer to conclude that it's Nolan, not Martz, calling the shots at quarterback. Now Mike Nolan has many positive attributes. Making calls on defense is one. Assembling a locker room full of upstanding players is another. Choosing a coat-and-tie ensemble is yet another. Offense? He hasn't exactly displayed a deft touch with that side of the ball. (See: 4th down decision making; clock management; choosing an offensive coordinator; Smith, Alex). But that's ok. In the offseason, Nolan hired a man who not only oozes offense but who has a reputation as a quarterback kingmaker. Why not allow Martz to make the decision? And why not begin training camp with a No. 1 quarterback?
After all, there's lots to learn. And perhaps more important, the current situation lends itself to second guessing. Let's be clear. Whoever finally wins the starting job will struggle because every NFL quarterback struggles at some point during the season. In Week 12 last season, Eli Manning threw four interceptions in a 41-17 loss to the Vikings and finished with a 33.8 passer rating. But he didn't have to worry about losing his job. If the eventual 49ers starter falters - and he will -- the fans, the media and the players will automatically glance to the sideline to see if the other guy is warming up. And that's not a good situation.
So why will the competition drag on well into August? Maybe Nolan senses that none of his quarterbacks has the full confidence of the team. Maybe he believes that the eventual starter will earn the respect of his teammates by winning the job outright. But isn't Martz's decision enough to command that respect? This is a guy who turned Kurt Warner and Marc Bulger into stars and Jon Kitna -- Jon Kitna!! -- into one of the league's most prolific passers. When Martz picks a starter, every player on that team should fall in line. The question is whether Martz will get to make that decision.
-- Matt Barrows