As the 49ers gear up for another training camp, we're all understandably excited. Sure, we've been hurt before. But we're smart enough to know, this time, it's really true.

This team is very, very close.

It's got some issues, like every team does. (Yes, even the Patriots.) But as much as I hate to agree with Pete Prisco, I've gotta admit he said it best: "It's all quarterback with the 49ers." If we have an answer, we can honestly allow ourselves to think playoffs or bust. If not, then, well, not.

Since the end of last season, we'd assumed Shaun Hill had earned the job. His physical skills will never impress you. But he's a gamer, who's obviously earned the respect of his teammates. And he's a winner, with that oft-cited seven-and-three record that with a couple of breaks would be better still. No doubt, we'd thought. He's the man.

But Alex Smith, you might recall, was a #1 overall pick, and he was paid like it. He was never a sure thing, sort of a top pick by default. But he was still a top pick, and since then we've all wished—with increasing desperation—that he would justify that investment. It's been four years, though, and he still hasn't done it. So, all the more, the job should belong to Hill. Right?

Here's the problem. Despite the ravings of the blogosphere, the book on Smith is not at all closed. If you think he's a bust—and there are so, so many of you—you are totally, flagrantly wrong. Want proof? Ask yourself if you thought so after the last game in 2006. In that game, the 49ers, who had nothing to win, played a Broncos team with everything to lose. The 49ers didn't just win; they were led to the win, by Smith. Be honest. You didn't think he was a bust then. And because, in essence, he's been hurt ever since, he can't be a bust now. Not yet, anyway.

So the 49ers can't give up on him. Sure, wasting a top pick is bad. But giving that player away and watching him win somewhere else? Catastrophic.

Okay, so what to do? The solution seems obvious, and until a few weeks ago it seemed we were headed straight for it. Start over. Pretend that Smith, still only 25, is again the hot rookie. And while he learns, give the job to the gritty veteran. But this time, the gritty veteran will be played not by Tim Rattay, who'd proven nothing, but by Hill, who's proven so much more. The best of both worlds, see? If Hill succeeds, then we'll win, and Smith can take over later, when Hill declines. If Hill fails, then we'll lose, and Smith can take over sooner, but only when he's ready to succeed. Perfect.

But a strange thing happened on the way to the obvious. At the OTAs, the big story was Smith. He was healthy, confident. He had new life on his fastball. Scot McCloughan said he looked better than ever. (Of course, it must be noted that McCloughan has more than a little of his reputation riding on Smith, but his assessment was backed up by the beat writers at the scene.) Mike Singletary declared that Hill and Smith would compete into training camp. And Jimmy Raye said they might compete even longer. After all, he said, "we don't play [the season opener] until September 13."

The excitement is palpable, and why not? What a story this would be. Alex Smith, written off, left for dead, returns with a vengeance, proves the doubters wrong, and leads this proud franchise back to the top of the NFL. Add a musical score and you could sell the rights.

But as great as that story would be, Singletary is making a serious mistake. He made a mistake when he first established this competition. He compounded his mistake by declaring that the competition would continue into training camp. And now the only question is whether his mistake will take this season, full of such promise, and ruin it.

Let's say the competition goes the distance. When it ends, one of two things will happen. The more likely possibility is that the starter will be Hill. That, of course, is the right choice. But by waiting so long to make it, Singletary will have shown a dangerous lack of faith. To be successful, a team needs to look to its quarterback, and it has to believe. If the coach's belief is shaky, why should the team's be any stronger?

So Singletary will have undermined Hill, but worse, he'll have destroyed Smith. If Smith is allowed to start over, if he becomes a born-again rookie who will watch and learn, then it makes perfect sense for him to sit behind Hill. A rookie, particularly a rookie quarterback, can sit for a while without being labeled a bust. But despite all that Smith's been though, Singletary isn't giving him that break. Instead, he's thrusting him straight into the fire. He's challenging him to win the job, right now. And what do you call a #1 overall pick who can't win an open competition with an undrafted journeyman? That, my friends, is a bust.

The other possible outcome of this competition, of course, is that Smith will win it. And the results will be just as bad. A good friend of Smith's, Hill will publicly say the right things. But in private, how could he not be demoralized? He's been the team's best quarterback for two years. All he's done is win. What do I have to do to get my shot?

Smith, meanwhile, will be playing under a pressure so crushing that his failure will be virtually guaranteed. Again, this team is a quarterback away from real contention, and Hill is the people's choice. He's also probably, at least in private, the players' choice. When Smith struggles—and he will, at least a little—the public, and perhaps his teammates, will demand his head on a platter. But having declared Smith the winner of this drawn-out competition, Singletary won't be able to change course on a dime. So Smith will continue to play, the pressure will grow, his performance will suffer, the team will fracture, and the season—and Smith's career—will be lost.

We've all heard the coaching cliche that if you have two starting quarterbacks, you really have none. Until the OTAs, the 49ers had a pretty nice set-up: one starting quarterback—a crafty veteran with a belly full of guts—and one young kid with a world of talent still waiting to be developed. But in all the excitement surrounding the possibility that the kid might now be ready to deliver on his promise, Mike Singletary decided that having two starting quarterbacks—if only in the preseason—is the way to go.

It's not. At some point, this competition will end. If it ends soon, this season might just be what we so desperately hope it'll be. If it doesn't?

Be afraid. Be very afraid.