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Alex Smith today said that he's keeping an open mind about returning to the 49ers next season. "At this point, a lot of things are in the air as far as coaching and some other things. For me to talk about that right now would be hard." Smith is scheduled to earn just under $10 million next season. In order to remain with the 49ers -- indeed, for Smith to join any team -- he would have to restructure his contract. Asked if he was open to doing so, Smith said, "Absolutely. Absolutely ... I think ..." before trailing off.

Smith, of course, hasn't had a regular-season snap since his shoulder was separated in the fourth game last season. Smith fractured his shoulder just before the regular season began and had surgery in late October to remove the small piece of bone from his throwing shoulder. He said he hasn't resumed throwing, although he thought he probably could. He said he thought he'd be fine when teams reassemble in the spring for their first minicamps. "Long-term there will be no issues," he said. "There will be no difference from where I was before."

Smith also was asked about recent comments from former coach Mike Nolan, who has continued to take swipes at Smith since being fired by the 49ers. The latest volley came in a Yahoo! Sports story about former receiver Antonio Bryant, whom Nolan released before the 2007 season. "He was the best receiver we had in San Francisco, in the time I was here," said Nolan, fired by the 49ers in October. "Looking back on it, I actually made a mistake in letting him go. I think I put too much blame on Antonio, as far as his relationship with the quarterback. As it turns out, it was not all his doing. I blamed him for more than he should have been blamed for. There's no question he was making more effort than I was made aware of. I truly regret that."

Smith, who feuded with Nolan over the handling of his shoulder injury, seemed amused that Nolan continued to take jabs at him, but he had no comments about his former coach. "That's not even pertinent to comment on," he said.

Smith said he would wait to see how "things would shake out" before deciding whether to return to San Francisco. He says he routinely speaks with general manager Scot McCloughan and that he also has a good relationship with Mike Singletary. "I talk to him whenever I can. It's hard for a player on IR. I like being around as much as I can." He said that Singletary has done a good job of removing "the gray area" as far as what is expected of the players. He acknowledged that the process of reinventing himself in San Francisco would be more difficult than in another NFL city because of the expectations that have come with being the team's first overall draft pick. But he also said that he would enjoy the challenge of winning over skeptical fans. "It's something that gets me going," Smith said. "You start to get that chip on your shoulder, trying to prove everybody wrong."

So, what are the chances that Smith actually returns to the 49ers? Two things this season helped facilitate his return. The most important -- by a wide margin -- is Nolan's departure. Nolan seems to have made it his life-mission to undermine his former quarterback. The second is the emergence of Shaun Hill. Hill has played well enough to go into 2009 as the starter. That gives the 49ers two luxuries: They don't have to use a first-round draft pick on a quarterback. Instead, they can use a mid-round pick and let him develop. It also allows them to see whether Smith has fully recovered. Smith and Hill also get along well, and there would be no ego clash if Smith had to play behind Hill.

McCloughan's presence also bodes well for a Smith return. After all, what other general manager in the league would give Smith a better opportunity as the GM who drafted him in the first place? In that regard, Smith's decision to stick around the team facility this season -- and more importantly, to stay in contact with McCloughan -- was a wise one.

-- Matt Barrows


Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.

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