49ers Blog and Q&A

News, notes and reader questions about the San Francisco 49ers

February 11, 2011
Jim Harbaugh & Alex Smith: a marriage of convenience

You know that tired, old scene you see in sit-coms and romantic comedies? It's the one where two close friends -- one male, the other female - are having trouble finding love. So one says to the other: I tell you what, if neither of us are married by the time we're 40, let's marry each other.

You might think of the Alex Smith-Jim Harbaugh relationship in those terms. At the end of the day -- or rather the end of the offseason -- each may find the other as his best option. Is it true love? No, but it's practical, and that's probably the best word to describe the recent wooing of Alexander D. Smith. Consider it a marriage of convenience.

smith.jpg harbaugh.jpg

In a normal year, there would be no way Smith would return to the 49ers. Too much troubled water has passed under the bridge. In a normal year, the 49ers would have the option of adding a quarterback in free agency, trading for one before or during the draft and adding another in the draft. By the first week of May, their quarterback cupboard -it's currently full of cobwebs - would be restocked, and Harbaugh would begin coaching up his new pupils in a post-draft minicamp.

In a normal year, Smith would have plenty of free-agent suitors. He's 26 years old (so is Joe Flacco), and he's in perfect health. He's been to hell and back from a quarterback's perspective, and he's survived the trip. Other teams realize that. Would anyone hand Smith a starting job? No, but he'd have enough attractive offers - probably two of them within the division - to say farewell to San Francisco.

In a normal year, Harbaugh's post-draft May minicamp would spill into a series of June OTAs. There would be classroom sessions. The new quarterbacks would take home their playbooks every night. In late July, everyone would return for training camp, which would turn into the preseason and then the regular season. Birds would sing. Children would laugh. Life would be wonderful.

This year, however, there's a chance - and seemingly a growing chance - that most of those events won't happen and the league goes dark. On March 4, the owners could initiate a lockout that would wipe away all of those offseason events, save the draft, until a new collective bargaining agreement can be worked out. When will a new CBA be completed? No one knows for sure, but because the players are paid on a game-by-game basis, some speculate that only the threat of lost game checks will re-start negotiations. And that means the impasse could last until August or longer.

If a new CBA is drafted in, say, August, league insiders believe there might be a two-week free-agency period. That would severely limit the options available. For one, teams would be more apt to re-sign their own free agents because they are familiar with their systems. Teams also would be less inclined to spend big money on players who couldn't help them early in the season. Someone like Smith would find only a few suitors, and even if he did switch teams he'd be behind the quarterback holdovers on his new team in a competition to be a starter.

The same goes for trades. If the CBA strife lasts until August, the 49ers would be less apt to give up draft picks for a player who will be largely useless to them in 2011. As an example, Troy Smith joined the 49ers in September last year and still hadn't picked up the full offense by the end of the season.

Of course, Alex Smith could be in the same boat as any other 49ers newcomer quarterback in August - having to learn a new offense in a severely abbreviated offseason. Which explains the recent meetings between him and Harbaugh.

If the 49ers had their druthers, they'd sign Smith to a one-year contract extension. (I'm told no offer has been made .... yet). That not only would allow Harbaugh and Smith to have more intensive teaching sessions between now and March 4 but would allow Harbaugh to give Smith the 49ers offensive playbook - which is what new Rams offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels plans to do with Sam Bradford - to study over the offseason.

Smith, of course, isn't expected to sign anything and limit his options. But you can bet that Harbaugh still will give him a box full of West Coast material to take home with him over the offseason. That and a proposal -- if neither of us has found a match by August, let's hook up.

Speaking of quarterbacks who divide the fanbase, here's another look at Cam Newton's Thursday workout in San Diego.

-- Matt Barrows


Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.


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