Alex Smith. Not since Terrell Owens huffed and puffed his way out of San Francisco has a 49er evoked so much emotion from the fan base. Put the word "Alex Smith" in your headline and your hit count expands by 500 percent. Suggest that Smith has let the franchise down (or vice versa) and you'll be attacked by a swarm of angry comments. Even Falcons wide receiver Roddy White (?!) has an opinion -- a strong one -- on the matter.
New coach Jim Harbaugh adds a few more volts to this super-charged subject every time he talks about the quarterback. Harbaugh's recent praise of Smith has been effusive, rosy, even over the top. And it triggers an emotional response from fans who see Smith as the one constant in six seasons of middling to low-grade offense.
Emotion, however, isn't behind the 49ers' efforts to bring Smith back for the 2011. Instead, it's pragmatism. The 49ers simply have few options in this odd offseason at the most important position on the team. They need bodies.
When it was suggested Wednesday that Smith would have to learn yet another offense and that there were other potential options at quarterback more well-versed in the West Coast offense, general manager Trent Baalke essentially said, who?
"I'd like the list of guys who know the West Coast offense that we can get," Baalke said. "I don't know that I totally agree with that." Baalke didn't talk about potential West Coast quarterbacks, but it's clear the 49ers think they will be difficult to attain and that there is no guarantee they will land one.
Who's on that list and why are the 49ers skeptical?
* Marc Bulger, free agent. Bulger learned the West Coast in 2009 when Pat Shurmur became the Rams' offensive coordinator. The Cardinals are believed to be the team with the best shot of landing him.
* Matt Flynn, Packers. Flynn has been well-coached by the Packers but his starting experience is limited to one game. He would need to be acquired through a trade.
* Matt Hasselbeck, free agent. Hasselbeck would be a perfect "bridge" quarterback for Harbaugh. However, he's spent the last 10 years in Seattle, and it's a safe best he wants to remain there.
* Josh Johnson, Buccaneers. Johnson not only knows the West Coast, he knows Harbaugh having been his starter at the University of San Diego. However, Tampa Bay likes him and may have an asking price the 49ers are unwilling to pay.
* Kevin Kolb, Eagles. Kolb is young, has starting experience and has been well-groomed by the Eagles staff. However, his price tag is a first-round pick and there promises to be competition to attain him. Any team that lands Kolb also would have to sign him to a long-term deal.
* Donovan McNabb, Redskins. McNabb knows the West Coast as well as anyone. However, there is doubt within the 49ers organization whether McNabb can take the 49ers, or any team, to a Super Bowl. If there wasn't, they would have tried to get him last year.
Signing Smith to a one-year deal does not preclude the 49ers from adding one of these other quarterbacks. Indeed, Baalke and Harbaugh have been consistent in saying all of the passers they attain will be thrown into the mix at the position. The 49ers' thinking is that Smith simply gives them another option.
One more point about Harbaugh's praise of Smith, which has been interpreted by some as evidence that Harbaugh absolutely adores Smith. Harbaugh told me the other day that he's gone over every NFL snap that Smith has taken. And as we all know, there are more than a few uglies in that group. Harbaugh knows very well that Smith isn't the second coming of Joe Montana.
His effusive words are calculated. Harbaugh not only has to convince Smith to return to a town that boos him at every incompletion. He also is trying to pump Smith up if indeed he is Harbaugh's starting quarterback on Sept. 11.
-- Matt Barrows