When he was on the radio earlier this month, general manager Trent Baalke listed three ways the 49ers would go about restocking the quarterback position: the draft, free agency and trades. "Is the quarterback of the future on this roster?" Baalke asked. "I think it's obvious that he isn't at this point, but things could change and they will change through one of those three vehicles."
When Jim Harbaugh went on the radio this week, he also talked about leaving no stone unturned when it came to gathering quarterbacks. But unlike Baalke, Harbaugh raised a fourth option - retaining a current quarterback, in particular, Alex Smith. "I've been studying Alex Smith and watching him," Harbaugh told Grant Napear on KHTK radio in Sacramento. "And I believe that Alex Smith can be a winning quarterback in the National Football League. I'm excited to work with him, get to know him ..."
Napear asked what Harbaugh liked about Smith. "Very accurate passer, very athletic - a guy that has played and been durable," Harbaugh said. As was the case last week when he met with reporters, Harbaugh stressed that every 49ers player had a clean slate moving forward.
But while Harbaugh may give Smith a clean slate, the 49ers fan base will not. That was evident during the season finale at Candlestick Park when a Smith incompletion triggered an avalanche of boos from the crowd. His passer rating at the time was 158.3 - perfect - and he would go on to lead his team to a 38-7 win over Arizona. It's gotten to the point that even when Smith wins, he loses.
Smith said on more than one occasion this past season that he is conscious of the booing, of the exasperation of him from the fan base. Is it fair? It doesn't really matter. It exists, and Smith will have to decide whether he can ever prosper in that atmosphere.
Harbaugh may be able to convince Baalke, who has the final say on the 49ers roster, to give Smith another shot. But the decision ultimately lies with Smith, who is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent on March 4.
The terrible reality is that the current 49ers situation - an offensive-minded head coach who molds quarterbacks coupled with a strong supporting cast on offense - is precisely what Smith needed six years ago when he was coming out of Utah. Joining Harbaugh would be ideal for a tough 26-year-old quarterback who, as Harbaugh said, is accurate and athletic.
But as much as Harbaugh talks about fresh starts, it's not realistic for Smith. My guess is that other teams will see the same promise in him that Harbaugh sees and that he'll have a number of suitors. No team is going to guarantee him a starting job, but the 49ers won't either. My guess is that Smith walks.
-- Matt Barrows