When word hit the wire that new San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh had spoken to beleaguered quarterback Alex Smith, and that a positive result occurred, many assumed that Harbaugh decided to take a shot on Smith for the longer term. Smith, the first overall pick in 2005, has never worked out in the pros, and that's had as much to do with the fact that the 49ers change offensive coordinators every season as it does Smith's history of injury and ineffectiveness.
But at the 2011 owner's meetings, Harbaugh started singing a slightly different tune, accented by the news that the 49ers are one of many teams interested in working out, or discussing a future with, several draft-eligible quarterbacks, such as Nevada's Colin Kaepernick and Florida State's Christian Ponder.
"That was reported," Harbaugh said of the Smith meeting as the meetings wrapped up Tuesday in New Orleans. "It was 'reported' that I did that. But I had as many chats with [running back] Frank [Gore] as I did Alex. The philosophy was always to get the best quarterbacks on our team, keep the best ones and then all the other avenues that you have — draft, free agency, trade. There are a couple of those options that we haven't been able to use."
So … maybe that endorsement wasn't all it was cracked up to be? Or, maybe Harbaugh has had more time to watch tape, and he's not entranced with what he sees of Smith. After all, as an NFL quarterback for 14 years from 1987 through 2000 (his name is in the Indianapolis Colts' Ring of Honor), Harbaugh has a better handle than most coaches about just what attributes will work at the position.
"I think the No. 1 thing for a quarterback is athletic instincts. That he possesses them and that he also has the spatial feel of the field like a point guard. Or the guy that can play center field. He can go do that — a good NFL quarterback can go start on the soccer team or catch fly balls, at least be the sixth man on the basketball team.
"Also, accuracy. A guy that can throw a football accurately. Understands timing. Has the ability to make really good decisions. Is tough. Who has a sense of leadership through his own personality. Has a confidence about him. And there are other factors. But those are pretty much the main ones."
"I watch the tape," Harbaugh continued when asked how those attributes are discovered. "It's something you really need to watch the flow of the game, what's happening in the two-minute drill, is the team behind, is the team ahead? Critical third down, who in the offense is getting the ball? Are they putting it in the quarterback's hands or are they giving it to the running back? That tells you a lot."
And the fact that most quarterbacks in this draft class played in some variants of the spread offense —- formerly the kiss of death for potential NFL signal-callers — didn't seem to worry Harbaugh at all. A sensible position, when you consider the percentages of shotgun sets used in the modern NFL. NFL teams go shotgun three times more often than they did a decade ago, and in 2010, the Detroit Lions went shotgun two-thirds of the time. Smith, coming as he did from Urban Meyer's power spread at Utah, has always been more efficient when he wasn't directly under center. Kaepernick, who played in the Pistol formation for Chris Ault at Nevada, is familiar enough with play-action timing on the half-shotgun with a back 3 yards behind him to make the transition nearly a moot point.
"These guys are adjusting so fast," Harbaugh said. "I'm just really looking at these guys in this draft and when you go watch their workouts and watch them throw live and see them spin it, take drops from center, see them go through the footwork and have to duplicate that at the NFL level, you're seeing that they can do it.
"You see it. Like a bird-watcher. You know it when you see it."
Harbaugh will have to wait to speak with any quarterbacks who are his — the lockout prevents him from talking to Smith or any of the 49ers' other signal-callers, and the moment the team drafts a quarterback, he's off-limits. But that isn't stopping Harbaugh, who had the nation's best college quarterback at Stanford in the person of Andrew Luck, from looking down every possible avenue for the guy he'll need to help turn the 49ers into champions again.
"It doesn't do any good to get frustrated and I wish I could be with the players right now. The thing I was most looking forward to coaching in the National Football League was being back with those guys. The pros. Guys who love the game the most. The hardest workers.
"It'll come. It'll happen. In the meantime, though, I'm not going to get frustrated. I'm going to work on the draft and really get to know the draft prospects even that much better.
"But they'll be back. We'll be back with them."