Shutdown Corner

Apparently, Alex Smith was Jim Harbaugh’s man all along

Doug Farrar
Shutdown Corner

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Jim Harbaugh is unimpressed with reporters in general. (Getty Images)

Never mind that San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman traveled to North Carolina in mid-March to assess the condition of free-agent quarterback Peyton Manning. This is a well-documented fact, as is the fact that current 49ers quarterback Alex Smith was deciding whether to accept a three-year, $24 million offer from the team. As the process went on, Smith took a free-agent trip to Miami, Manning signed with the Denver Broncos, and eventually, Smith came back home to sign the deal originally offered.

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Harbaugh, never one to make his intentions a public spectacle, had an interesting entry method when he and Roman prepared to watch Manning throw. From our buddy Peter King:

First they watched from a car by the side of the field, then, to get a better view, they came onto the field, hoodies pulled over their heads so as not to be recognized by some nosy iPhoner. Manning texted his mother, Olivia: "You'll never guess who I just worked out for. He was wearing a hoodie."

"Bill Belichick?" she responded.

Now, we didn't imagine any of this. The 49ers' interest in Manning may not have been reported right away, but it was real, and there was a distinct possibility in the minds of some that if Manning had been willing to move to the Bay Area, the 49ers' quarterback plans would have changed pretty drastically.

Or, not. On Wednesday, Harbaugh worked up all the exasperation he could muster and went on an unsolicited rant about the way the Manning thing was covered. Per Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com:

"There's a perception out there, and it's an erroneous perception, that we were flirting with Peyton Manning. I keep hearing that over and over and over again. It's silly. And it's untrue. It's phony.

"Even the perception we were pursuing him. We were evaluating him. I said it all along that Alex Smith is our quarterback. There's no scenario other than Alex choosing to sign with another team that we would've considered him not as our quarterback.

"Don't like to compare or talk about somebody else who's on another team, but in this case, wanted to set the record straight. Alex Smith is our quarterback, was our quarterback and had every intention of always bringing him back. There'd be no circumstance where we would've let Alex Smith go.

"Now, were we out there seeing, evaluating if we could have them both? Heck, yeah. You evaluate that. You eliminate the possibility. Further evidence, we would not have given any player that was out there in free agency (one-sixth) of our salary cap and let six or seven of our own guys go. So hopefully that sets the record straight and you don't have to keep reporting the silliness and the phoniness."

Well.

The 49ers may have had every intention of bringing Smith back even if Manning had signed with them, but the shots Harbaugh takes seem gratuitous at best. And the line Harbaugh tries to strike between "pursuing" and "evaluating" seems to go against Manning's own comments when he signed with the Denver Broncos. "When the two of us started to talk, I very easily could have seen myself being a 49er. That's why it was so hard," Manning said, presumably about his conversation with Harbaugh. In fact, it was reported (accurately) that Harbaugh, a former NFL quarterback, threw with Manning at one session. So, what was that about? Did Harbaugh want to get a sense of how his own arm measured up at this point in time?

It's also not known how the 49ers were planning to manage the fiscal constraints of having Manning and Smith on the same roster, but if the current contracts lined up, there would have been a serious hit on the team's 2012 salary cap. Smith wound up with his 2012 base salary of $5 million guaranteed, as well as a $3 million initial roster bonus. Manning has his entire 2012 base salary of $18 million guaranteed by the Broncos. Aside from any non-guaranteed bonuses or incentives, that would have tied up $26 million in 2012 cash on two quarterbacks.

Excessive to some, but according to Harbaugh, that's not a question we should be asking.

"It's not your right or anybody else's right to know exactly what those implications would've been, but you can understand . . . The best fit for us was Alex Smith," Harbaugh said. "And we weren't going to give a sixth of our salary cap to anybody because we like six or seven of the current guys we have on this team that much."

Except that they almost did.

As Jim Trotter of SI.com put it, "Regarding Jim Harbaugh's comment on Peyton Manning, I haven't heard a denial this laughable since Bill Clinton spoke on Monica Lewinsky. Great respect for Jim, but the game of semantics gets old at times. As any veteran NFL coach will tell you: It is what it is."

We agree, and that's where we'll leave it.

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