That love affair between Jim Harbaugh and Alex Smith that's been so hot and heavy for the last 14 months? There's trouble in paradise.
Any way you cut it, Smith's stature in the 49ers organization is diminished by today's news that the 49ers are one of the teams courting Peyton Manning. And no matter how it turns out, it will be very hard to believe any of the sweet nothings that leave Harbaugh's lips from this point forth.
Sure, the 49ers will try to salvage the story should Manning ultimately choose the Titans or the Broncos. They'll say that it would have been irresponsible not to kick the tires on Manning, especially if it was Manning who approached the 49ers, as has been speculated by some. They might even say that this was communicated to Smith and that Smith understood.
But I don't see how Smith, who still could become the team's starter in 2012, emerges from this unscathed.
There are two scenarios at play here - that the 49ers are courting Manning because Smith has yet to sign the three-year offer that has been "on the table" for weeks now. Or that Smith has known about the interest in Manning for a while and is merely waiting to see how it plays out.
Scenario 1 implies that Smith believes his value to the club is greater than what the team offered him in the contract. The 49ers stuck to their offer - "the ball's in his court," Jed York said Monday - in recent weeks, allowing Smith to go into free agency, which means they either are confident he wouldn't get any better deals or that they weren't all that concerned if he got away.
Scenario 2 means that he's known about the interest in Manning and agreed to sit back and keep quiet while the King receives visitors and chooses where he plays next. You have to assume that Smith knew about San Francisco's interest in Manning or at least Manning's interest in San Francisco. After all, they have the same agent, Tom Condon, and there have been persistent rumors linking the 49ers and Manning since Manning was released by the Colts on March 7.
It's hard to believe that just two months ago, all of the stories were how Smith has persevered through a storm of misfortune in San Francisco and how he finally silenced his critics after leading the team to the cusp of the Super Bowl. Even if Smith returns - and there's still a good chance he does; Manning is seeking a deal worth $90 million - today's events indicate that the devotion Harbaugh poured forth wasn't as solid as it seemed and signal that the Bay Area's ambivalence toward Smith will continue.
-- Matt Barrows