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Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) rolls out to pass in the second quarter of their football game against the Dallas Cowboys, Thursday, Nov. 29, 2007, in Irving, Texas. Packers starting quarterback Brett Favre was injured during the second quarter and left the game. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
SANTA CLARA — He threw for 201 yards and a touchdown. He was given a stamp of approval by one of the great ones. Aaron Rodgers is the real deal.

On the wrong team.

The more it appears Alex Smith may not be the quarterback for the 49ers, the more it appears Aaron Rodgers should have been.

Rodgers was the local hero, the kid from Cal, the one who completed his first 23 passes against USC in 2004. But the Niners passed him by in the'05 draft, and eventually the Green Bay Packers took him.

The Niners were going to prove we didn't know football, prove Alex Smith was the smart choice. Someday he very well be that.

He isn't at the moment.

Smith is ailing, has that dislocated shoulder. The Niners quarterback position is ailing, backup Trent Dilfer throwing four interceptions in the 31-14 loss Sunday to the Carolina Panthers.

Aaron Rodgers is progressing. When Brett Favre went down against the Cowboys, Rodgers got up. Completed 18 of 25 in his first major chance at significant playing time. Impressed the master himself.

"I thought he played great," said Favre. "He gave us afrom Sports 1

chance to win."

Mike Nolan has linked himself inextricably to Alex Smith, who was Mike's selection in Mike's first draft. And whether Nolan or personnel director Scott McCloughan had the final say, doesn't matter.

What does matter is Smith, even before the injury, has not met expectations.

Maybe because he's had three offensive coordinators. Maybe because Alex came from a shotgun offense at Utah. Maybe because he isn't as good as Mike Nolan thought he would be.

"You could go a lot of different ways with that," said Nolan. "Obviously, (Rodgers) is on a different football team. They're a football team that's got tremendous momentum. I think it's unfair to compare the two."

Unfair but not unrealistic. Rodgers has been learning from Favre, arguably the greatest of all time. Learning on a team which will be in the playoffs. Learning in a situation without pressure.

Then, when given the chance, stepped on the field and performed.

"I saw the game too," Nolan said of Dallas' 37-27 victory over the Pack. But everything about his situation is different. He goes in where even the people around him have a lot of confidence in what's going on."

This should have been the year Smith blossomed. Now it is the year a television report says the Niners are considering not picking up an $8 million option on Smith's contract for the 2009-10 seasons.

Now it is the year Nolan concedes the Niners must acquire another competent quarterback. Although the coach naturally didn't express it that directly.

"I think it's very important," Nolan agreed, "that you have competition at every position. Quarterback is not sacred of that type of thought process.

"Whatever the position, obviously guys don't grow on trees. And if you're talking about real competition, then you're talking about somebody you have to pursue, as opposed to draftable competition. Again, I'm speaking of any position, but the quarterback is not immune."

The Niners' troubles hardly are restricted to quarterback. The defense, so stout for so long, was ineffective against the Panthers. Yet when it's on the field 38 minutes, that's hardly a surprise.

The surprise is Nolan finally is allowing the mask to slip.

For 21/2 seasons he has kept up the pose and the prose, trying to persuade us it will all work out.

"It angers me we lost the game," Nolan said.

Nate Clements, Michael Lewis, Marques Douglas and Frank Gore are not to be chastised. They are to be commended.

"But as a football team, it's the whole that counts," Nolan said.

Including quarterback. When he's healthy that would be Alex Smith.

But probably it should have been Aaron Rodgers.

Art Spander can be reached at

typoes@aol.com.