Niners opt to start Alex Smith at QB; Willis out after hand surgery

Alex Smith fought for himself when former San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Singletary told the quarterback he wasn't starting in last Sunday's must-win game at St. Louis.

"I don't know how much lobbying I was doing. That's not my job," Smith said Wednesday. "Definitely emotional, frustrated. I definitely voiced my opinion, that's for sure. I wasn't sitting back and taking it."

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Singletary went with Troy Smith before returning to Alex Smith in the fourth quarter of the 49ers' 25-17 loss to the Rams. Singletary lost his job several hours later.

Interim coach Jim Tomsula, promoted from his defensive line duties, has made his pick: It's back to Alex Smith behind center for the team's season finale Sunday at home against the Arizona Cardinals.

"Experience," Tomsula said of his reasoning for picking Alex Smith.

This is likely Alex Smith's final hurrah in a 49ers uniform. The 2005 No. 1 overall pick out of Utah will become a free agent after the season, another year of disappointment as San Francisco (5-10) has missed the playoffs for the eighth consecutive year.

Smith, 26, will wait until the offseason -- coming much earlier than planned for 49ers players who expected to win the NFC West -- to contemplate his NFL future.

"It's nice to go out there and play well, period. I'm not really getting into what's going to happen after this," Smith said. "Whenever you go out there, even though it's the last game of the season and we're out of the playoffs, pride's on the line. You want to go out there and play well, no question. That's not going to change."

Smith has been repeatedly booed by the Candlestick Park crowd this year during San Francisco's struggles on offense. Smith was replaced by Troy Smith for five games from Oct. 31 through Dec. 5, initially after he separated his non-throwing left shoulder at Carolina on Oct. 24.

Singletary went back to Alex Smith on Dec. 12, and the quarterback led the 49ers to a 40-21 victory over the division rival Seattle Seahawks. The next week, though, he was sacked six times in a loss at San Diego. Smith has an 18-31 record as the 49ers' starter.

While he has said in the past that he wanted to prove he was worth the top pick five years ago, right now Smith just cares about his team entering the offseason on a strong note.

"Of course that desire's always there. I don't know if it necessarily goes back to the draft, per se, as where a few years ago I was not that far removed from that," he said. "At this point, it's you want to go out and win, for the organization, for the fans, for the team. Any team you're a part of, you want to do it for everyone involved."

Smith is in the final year of the two-year deal that he restructured in March 2009 to sharply reduce his base salary. He acknowledges he greatly underachieved this season, with a talented receiving group featuring Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis, second-year pro Michael Crabtree and Josh Morgan.

Smith has completed 189 of 313 passes this season for 2,094 yards and 12 touchdowns while throwing 10 interceptions and being sacked 23 times. He has a 79.7 passer rating.

It has been another year of drama to say the least for a quarterback who's accustomed to nothing less so far during his up-and-down NFL tenure. Coming into 2010, Smith hadn't been entrenched as the top guy since the beginning of his tumultuous 2007 season.

Smith started all preseason and the first four games in '07 before injuring his throwing shoulder. He sat out the next two games, then tried to return and played three ineffective outings in constant pain. He was sacked seven times in those three games -- all losses -- and that was it. He eventually had surgery in December, well after he wanted to get the procedure, but going on then-coach Mike Nolan's preferred schedule. Smith missed the entire 2008 campaign.

Smith replaced Shaun Hill as the 49ers' quarterback midway through last season.

Now, Smith likely has one last game to leave his mark on this city and franchise. Not that he has turned nostalgic and given it much thought.

"That's all out there. Those are possibilities," he said of departing. "But I'll have enough time to ponder and think about all that stuff after the season."

In injury news, Pro Bowl inside linebacker Patrick Willis underwent a second surgical procedure this week on his broken right hand and will miss a start for the first time in his four-year career.

"I don't want to talk about it," Willis said in the 49ers' locker room Wednesday, his hand heavily wrapped.

Willis, who played the past two games with a bulky cast on his hand, was voted to his fourth Pro Bowl on Tuesday. It's unclear if he will play for the NFC squad in the Jan. 30 game in Honolulu. Willis planned to talk to San Francisco's team doctors before making a decision. He missed the 2010 game with an inflamed right knee that later required surgery.

Willis, 25, has a team-leading 128 tackles with six sacks and two forced fumbles. The team didn't provide specifics about his latest procedure.

"I know it will have an impact because he's such an outstanding football player," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said.

In May, Willis signed a five-year, $50 million contract extension that takes him through the 2016 season and includes $29 million in guaranteed money. He earns $10 million per year.

Willis, who developed into a defensive star under recently fired coach and Hall of Fame linebacker Singletary, has led the 49ers in tackles in each of his NFL seasons since San Francisco selected him with the 11th overall pick in 2007 out of Mississippi.

"It's a loss for sure, no question," Smith said. "Not just for the defense but the team to have him not there in pads. He's definitely a leader of this team. We'll be affected by it. He's certainly not asking anything of his teammates that he doesn't ask of himself. That's the thing I appreciate most about him."

Navorro Bowman will start in Willis' place Sunday against the last-place Cardinals.

The 49ers' defense will have a different look without Willis, who had four solo tackles, an assist and a sack in a 27-6 Monday night victory at Arizona on Nov. 29.

"He's a great player. I saw what he did last time he played us," Cardinals rookie quarterback John Skelton said. "He's a talented guy, so that's a big advantage for us."

The 49ers added some depth at linebacker by signing Alex Joseph off the Carolina Panthers' practice squad. An undrafted rookie, Joseph spent training camp with the Green Bay Packers before being released at the final cutdown. He spent a month on the Oakland Raiders' practice squad before being released and landing with the Panthers.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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