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Monday August 15th, 2011

Daunte Culpepper played in the UFL last year for the Sacramento Mountain Lions after 11 years in the NFL. (Chris Trim, ZUMApress.com)

Alex Smith has been starting off and on for San Francisco since 2005, which puts him right up there with American Idol and The Office in the category of Things That Have Lasted for Too Many Seasons.

At some point, barring a major and unexpected spike in Smith's production, the 49ers are going to have to cut their losses and give up on the former No. 1 overall pick. We might be at that point.

San Francisco brought Daunte Culpepper in for a workout Monday. The 34-year-old quarterback spent last season playing for the UFL's Sacramento Mountain Lions, after starting 10 games for the Lions over the 2008 and '09 seasons.

New 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said there's a realistic chance Culpepper makes the roster:

"It's an opportunity to look at a veteran QB, put a third guy on the roster who has been there before and had game experience. So [we'll] see where he's at physically, see where he's at mentally, emotionally, and have a workout."

Currently behind Smith on the roster is second-round pick Colin Kaepernick, who finished 9-for-19 for 117 yards in San Francisco's preseason opener against the Saints, as well as undrafted rookies McLeod Bethel-Thompson and Jeremiah Masoli.

It makes some sense, then, for San Francisco to bring in a quarterback with experience. But it's hard to imagine any world in which Culpepper makes the 49ers better.

During his two-year stint in Detroit -- which included five starts on the 0-16 Lions team of 2008 -- Culpepper looked slow and worn down. He threw just seven touchdown passes in 13 games (10 starts) over that span, while tossing 12 interceptions and taking 28 sacks. Blame most of that on the Lions being terrible if you want, but Culpepper hasn't thrown more than six touchdown passes in a single NFL season since 2004, one year before he suffered a serious knee injury.

If the 49ers' plan here is just to have a veteran emergency option at quarterback, then fine. But if there's even a split-second thought by Harbaugh that Culpepper could start if Smith struggles -- and there's probably reason to believe that idea is there -- then what's the point of keeping Smith around?

Either San Francisco trusts Smith to be this team's quarterback going forward or it doesn't. And if it doesn't, then what benefit is there in bringing in a battered 34-year-old quarterback when you have three rookie QBs on the roster?

With Harbaugh in the fold, this is when the 49ers should be laying down the foundation for the next five years. In other words, it's time to figure out, once and for all, what Smith is capable of. If what we've seen from Smith is all we're going to get, then San Francisco needs to move forward, not back. And playing Culpepper at any point would be a full-throttle shift in the wrong direction.

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