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San Francisco Forty Niners' quarterback Alex Smith passes the ball during the first quarter of the game against the Chicago Bears at Monster Park on Friday night.

CASUAL FRIDAY THIS wasn't. This was a watershed moment in 49ers quarterback Alex Smith's NFL career, which is now officially classified as a bust.

Oh, that could change, if he turns up down the road as the next Jim Plunkett instead of the next Jim Druckenmiller.

Smith just won't show up in the 49ers' starting lineup on opening day Sept. 7. Coach Mike Nolan declared Friday that journeyman J.T. O'Sullivan is the winner of this three-stooges derby.

Smith and Shaun Hill have been banished to the sideline, a familiar place for Hill and an embarrassing hostel for Smith, the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2005.

If Smith weren't such a high pick, and if he were still a rookie "learning" behind Tim Rattay, there wouldn't be such a fuss. But there is a fuss, courtesy of that April 23, 2005, selection by Nolan & Co.

Nolan, of course, disagrees that Smith is a bust, stating: "The perception will be wrong, if that is the perception. That's all I can say. It's wrong."

It's wrong, if you think Smith and this summer's demotion will fade into oblivion. This isn't weight off Nolan's shoulders. It will sit with him the rest of his career, just as it will Smith's.

Asked if this decision to start J.T.O. is a load off his mind, Nolan responded half-jokingly: "I know the next questions when we get together won't be about who'll be the starting quarterback."

Don't be so sure of that. Nolan's job is to answer the questions, not give them.

And that question certainly could come after the season opener against Arizona. Or after Week 2 at Seattle. Or whenever O'Sullivan has a brain freeze in Mike Martz's complex scheme, or throws an interception into double coverage in his own red zone (see: Exhibition Game No. 2), or tosses an unthinkable backward pass (see: Exhibition Game No. 1).

O'Sullivan isn't perfect, even if his passer rating was in Thursday's third exhibition outing (and remember to put an emphasis on "exhibition").

He also isn't Smith, who's been in a no-win situation from the day this moribund franchise drafted him. From the four offensive coordinators, to the lack of marquee wide receivers, to a lapse by the offensive line that led to last season's Shoulder-gate, to the betrayal by his head coach, Smith hasn't had it easy, even if the $24 million guaranteed came so easy by way of his rookie contract.

All those extenuating circumstances, plus Smith's good-natured personality, make it uncomfortable to pin the "bust" label on him. "Backup quarterback" works as a synonym in this case.

"He has a lot of ability, a lot of potential," Nolan said. "He will be a very good quarterback in this league. He's not there at this point."

At Year 4, Smith needs to be there. Because he's not, he's a bust. The 49ers made a massive financial investment in him, and after just three seasons, he'll now be signaling in plays to O'Sullivan.

Smith has handled all this in his typical, mild-mannered ways. He's been respectful, not rude. O'Sullivan, meanwhile, has unveiled an unflattering edge to himself; Nolan even acknowledged that he had trouble reading O'Sullivan's feelings after Friday's coronation.

As for Smith's future, Nolan said the organization hasn't discussed whether to cut ties. Sorry, but you just have to have that discussion, when so much has been babbled the past six months about the quarterback position.

"He's getting better and better right now," Nolan said in defense of Smith.

In defense of the statistics, Smith's completion percentage this exhibition season is getting worse and worse (55.6 percent to 41.7 to 35.3). Blame part of that on an inferior receiving corps, just as you can blame other downfalls in Smith's career on other factors. Even Smith, however, acknowledged he's missed on "can't-miss" throws.

Smith wasn't a can't-miss prospect when he came out of Utah at age 20. He wasn't an obvious No. 1 choice. Now he's a lame duck destined to try reviving his career elsewhere, because there are few signs he'll get a legitimate chance with legitimate weapons in the 49ers' near future.

"This has been a case of J.T. O'Sullivan performing very well," Nolan said. "That's why we are where we are."

They're also where they are because they can't afford to wait for Smith any longer, regardless of who's at fault for that.

Nolan claims he doesn't see it as a problem that Smith just got benched. It is a problem. One that will hang over this franchise not only for this season, but also for years to come.

Contact Cam Inman at cinman@bayareanewsgroup.com.