The 49ers beat the NFL trading deadline on Tuesday by sending quarterback Tim Rattay, a six-year veteran, to Tampa Bay for a draft pick. San Francisco had four quarterbacks on the roster: Alex Smith, Rattay, Ken Dorsey and Cody Pickett.
The decision to send Rattay to the Bucs signals that the 49ers are set to hand the keys of the franchise to Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft.
Smith is expected to start for the 49ers this Sunday against the Redskins at FedExField.
On the factors that contributed to his decision to start Utah's Smith, 49ers head coach Mike Nolan said: "We don't have a lot of playmakers on offense. Alex has the ability to be a playmaker. Will he be a playmaker? Only time will tell. We drafted him because he has that ability."
Two weeks ago versus Indianapolis, Smith started and went 9-for-23 for 74 yards. He was sacked five times and threw four interceptions in a 28-3 loss. Smith and the 49ers had a bye last weekend, so he's had a chance to learn from his mistakes and improve on his start against Indianapolis.
The Redskins have already faced a rookie quarterback once this season in the Bears' Kyle Orton.
For a rookie making his first NFL start, Orton played well on Sept. 11 at FedExField. He completed 15-of-28 passes for 141 yards and one interception. The Bears led the game in the third quarter 7-6, but a John Hall 19-yard field goal proved to be the margin of difference in the Redskins' 9-7 season-opening win.
Cornerback Shawn Springs and the Redskins' defense is drawing on their experience against Orton in preparation for Smith.
"There are good coaches in the league now," Springs said. "Every QB has certain kind of passes that they like to throw and that they're comfortable with. Coach Nolan is a great coach and he's going to keep it where [Smith] is not asked to do too much. He'll be asked to just make throws when he needs. When he does, we're going to try to make some plays on him."
Added Marcus Washington: "He's going to come in and play tough. I'm sure the 49ers coaches aren't going to put too much on his shoulders. They'll put him in situations and give him a chance to make some plays. We'll have to play all four quarters of football, like it always is with us. We have to play four quarters."
Going with Smith now is a move that Nolan hopes will pay dividends--if not this year, then in the long-term. All rookie quarterbacks have to learn on the job at some point--as Mark Brunell can attest.
Asked about his own experiences as a rookie, Brunell said: "For me, it wasn't a lot of fun. Everything goes real fast and there is an adjustment you have to make. There is a period of time where you're learning on the fly. My third year at quarterback helped me to get better. I started to get a grasp of what we were trying to do."
The 49ers opened their first season under Nolan, whose father, Dick Nolan, directed San Francisco to three NFC West Division titled in the 70s, by edging St. Louis 28-25. It's been all downhill from there, however.
The 49ers have lost four straight to drop to 1-4 on the season. They're coming off their bye week as they prepare to take on the Redskins.
Nolan served as the Redskins' defensive coordinator from 1997-99. He returned to FedExField for the first time last season as defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens. In that Oct. 10 game, safety Ed Reed's big play against Mark Brunell and the Redskins' offense sparked Baltimore to a 17-10 win. Washington led 10-0 at halftime before a blitzing Reed stripped the ball from Brunell and rushed 22 yards for the score that turned the game completely around.
Said Nolan: "It's a whole different deal now. Last year was my first time back in the stadium to play a game. Just to walk back into the stadium was a unique experience. Outside of that, we were pleased that we won the game but it wasn't anything personal for me. Players have to play. It's not about the coaches."
Nolan thought about it, gave a pause, and added: "If nothing else, I appreciate the experiences that I had in Washington. Without them, there are a lot of things that I wouldn't know. I realize that there were some experiences there that I couldn't get anywhere else."
The 1997 Redskins were 8-7-1, the 1998 team was 6-10 and the 1999 club produced a 10-6 season and won the NFC East crown.
On whether he feels far removed from his stint as Redskins defensive coordinator, Nolan said: "It feels like a while ago, and it has been a little while, about six years. I call on the experiences as a Redskins coach a lot, though. That's something I do for every place I've coached. It doesn't feel so distant that I don't call upon things that were learned there."
With the Redskins, Nolan worked on Norv Turner's staff. Now Nolan and Turner are both NFL head coaches in the Bay Area. This weekend, Nolan brings the West Bay team into FedExField and on Week 11 Turner will follow a similar path with the Raiders from the East Bay.
Said Nolan: "At this time of year, Norv and I don't get out to see each other because it's the season, but we talk from time to time. We have radio shows that are back-to-back, so we communicate on the air a little bit. Outside of that, we don't talk that much, but we've maintained a friendship over the years."