Jim Harbaugh has made it clear to Alex Smith that he will have a clean slate should the quarterback return to the 49ers for the 2011 season. Sure, that may be the case when it comes to Harbaugh and his coaching staff. But it's hard to see Smith, who was easily the most polarizing 49er when the 2010 season ended, ever getting a clean slate with 49ers fans.
I asked Harbaugh on Tuesday whether Smith could ever truly succeed in San Francisco if even mere incompletions are met with boos as was the case in the 2010 regular-season finale against the Cardinals. Smith completed 15 of 29 passes for 276 yards in that victory and threw deep touchdown passes to Ted Ginn and Vernon Davis.
Harbaugh paused. Then he chuckled.
"Well, the question is, 'Do you have baby deer skin or skin like an armadillo?," he said. "That's where the rubber meets the road there. If someone doesn't like me or doesn't cheer loud for me - is he going to be deep and emotionally scarred by that? I mean, most true competitors, most men like that would take offense to somebody inferring that about him."
Harbaugh thinks Smith has armadillo skin, and it's quite clear he'd like Smith to be on his roster for the 2011 season. According to multiple sources, there is an offer on the table - for one year - for Smith to return to the 49ers. Before the league year ended in February and before Smith became an unrestricted free agent, Harbaugh told reporters that "talks are going on" between the 49ers and Smith's representatives. I asked Harbaugh Tuesday whether the 49ers made an offer to Smith before the league year ended last month. His reply: "The NFL does not want us to comment on contract situations."
Smith, of course, did not sign a deal and can't do so with any team until the lockout ends or is lifted. Although he is a free agent, he continues to work out regularly with teammates in the South Bay. So far, those workouts are limited to the weight room, but the players involved say that they are trying to organize on-field sessions as well. Two receivers, Josh Morgan and Kevin Jurovich, are part of the workout group.
At the end of the season, Smith strongly intimated to a Bay Area News Group columnist that he would not return for a seventh season in San Francisco. Since then, however, the 49ers not only hired a head coach who knows how to handle quarterbacks - a first for Smith - but one who has heaped praise on Smith at every opportunity. The current labor situation also may give free agents like Smith only a limited window to find new teams. Additionally, Smith and his wife are expecting their first child next month. Smith hasn't spoken publicly since the season ended, and attempts to reach him this week were unsuccessful.
Harbaugh feels that Smith could handle a seventh year in San Francisco despite a skeptical fan base.
"He's a tough son of a gun," Harbaugh said. "I watched four really solid years of every snap the guy took - getting hit in the pocket, picking himself back up, playing under adversity, fierce competitor. I don't think (booing) will affect the guy."
-- Matt Barrows