CULVER CITY, Calif. -- As the first overall pick of the 2005 NFL Draft, Alex Smith was expected to restore the great quarterback tradition of the San Francisco 49ers that included such luminaries as Joe Montana and Steve Young.
That possibility now seems on shaky ground.
San Francisco coach Mike Nolan made it clear on Wednesday that there will be an open competition for the team's starting quarterback position in training camp and the preseason between Smith and Shaun Hill, who was given a three-year contract in early February after leading the 49ers to consecutive late-season victories in 2007 over Cincinnati and Tampa Bay.
"It will be an open competition," Nolan said before an appearance on NFL Network. "It's no one's job to lose. It's both guys' job to take."
Nolan added that on-field production will be the determining factor as to who wins the job and that Smith's status as a former No. 1 pick will play no role in the final decision.
"I have no favorites, I have no favorites at all," Nolan said. "You want to get the best one out there, because the players are looking. You're a football team, it's about winning. And your football team performs better when they know that jobs are won or lost on the field. That's where this will happen."
Smith's standing with the 49ers has changed dramatically in just one year.
Last offseason he was seen as a quarterback on the rise, and there were no questions about his place as a starter after throwing for nearly 3,000 yards in 2006, while leading San Francisco to a three-win improvement over his rookie season.
Now he has no more claim to the position than Hill.
That pronounced change of fortune symbolizes Smith's roller-coaster three-year tenure with the club. His arrival coincided with that of Nolan, and together they were charged with delivering the franchise from a bleak two-year period in which the team went 9-23 under the guidance of Dennis Erickson.
The first year for the duo was full of struggles as Smith lost five of his seven starts and completed only 48.7 percent of his passes with two touchdowns and four interceptions, as the team finished 4-12. He made typical rookie mistakes while showing few significant signs of progress.
The 49ers brought in Norv Turner to coordinate the offense in 2006 and a turnaround began. Smith started all 16 games and completed 58.1 percent of his passes with 16 touchdowns as the team improved to 7-9.
It looked as though the 49ers were well on their way towards re-establishing themselves as a contender in the NFC West. That's when Smith and the 49ers suffered a major blow. Turner left to take the head coaching job with the San Diego Chargers and the team struggled to find a replacement. They eventually settled on quarterbacks coach Jim Hostler, but he was unable to handle the position.
What ensued was a disappointing 5-11 season and an offense that scored only 219 points, tied for the fewest in franchise history in a 16-game season. The 49ers were last in nearly every key offensive statistical category and Smith suffered a shoulder injury that eventually caused him to be placed on injured reserve. He made just seven starts and lost his last five after winning his first two. He threw only two touchdown passes, completed only 48.7 percent of his passes and averaged only 152 yards passing in six starts he played the entire game.
Meanwhile, the relationship between Smith and Nolan appeared to be deteriorating, and Smith even called his coach out publicly after Nolan questioned the severity of his quarterback's shoulder ailment, an injury that eventually required surgery last December.
"He came out and said some things to the team," Smith told the San Jose Mercury News last season. "I felt it was trying to undermine me with my teammates."
On Wednesday, Nolan said there are no more excuses for Smith with Mike Martz in place as offensive coordinator. He added that Martz, who was hired to replace Hostler, was the best gift he could have given his embattled quarterback.
"I'll do everything I can to make sure that he's got the best opportunity to be a good player," Nolan said of Smith, whose contract was extended through 2010 after the 49ers excercised a "buyback" clause in February. "There's not much more I can do for him right now than giving him Mike Martz as the offensive coordinator. That's a pretty damned good gift. That's like giving your kid a Maserati. 'Here ya go, buddy. You know you wanted a nice car, I just gave you one.'
"We'll see if he can drive it."