49ers Blog and Q&A

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

March 23, 2012
QB racquetball outing is vintage Harbaugh

racquet.jpg

The 49ers suddenly have a full house at quarterback after signing two veterans, Alex Smith and Josh Johnson, to multi-year deals on Wednesday and Thursday. But if there's any tension or hurt feelings at the position, the passers certainly are doing a good job of hiding it. In fact, Jim Harbaugh and three of the quarterbacks - Johnson, Smith and Colin Kaepernick - played racquetball together after Johnson's visit on Thursday. Another 49ers quarterback, Scott Tolzien, is out of town.

Racquetball is Harbaugh's sport of choice these days. He wants to have a court built at the team facility. And while Thursday's outing with the fellas undoubtedly was a bonding experience (and is vintage Harbaugh), it also undoubtedly was extremely competitive (and is vintage Harbaugh). I'm surprised there are no reports of someone losing an eye or dislocating a shoulder.

Upon Johnson's signing, there was speculation (including from me; guilty) that his addition was alternately bad news for Smith, for Kaepernick and for Tolzien. Does this mean that Smith is gone after one year? Is the team thinking about trading Kaepernick so it can move up in the draft? If Tolzien goes on the practice squad, will he be snatched up?

My sense is that there's no master strategy at play here, at least at this time. Harbaugh simply wants as much competition as possible. It's like throwing four cats in a bag and seeing which come out intact. Or rather throwing a bunch of guys on a racquetball court and seeing who really likes to compete.

Smith is the likely starter for 2012. But as Matt Maiocco has pointed out very well, the structure of his three-year contract leaves the door open for the 49ers to make a change at this time next year. Smith only would get $7.5 million of the "guaranteed" portion of his contract if he is on the roster at April 1, 2013. That puts pressure on Smith to excel in 2012.

The addition of Johnson also creates pressure at the No. 2 and No. 3 quarterback positions. Is his presence specifically a bad omen for Kaepernick? After all, the two possess many of the same qualities - strong arm, fast feet - and Johnson already is familiar with the offense. No, Harbaugh and the 49ers knew that Johnson was going to be a free agent this year when they traded up to get Kaepernick last year. That is, there always must have been a thought of having the two quarterbacks on the roster at the same time. But the bottom line is that they are going to push each other.

Of the group of four, Tolzien, who went undrafted last year, is the only quarterback with practice squad eligibility. He was on the 53-man roster all of last season, but he was inactive for every game. Like the other four quarterbacks -- I'm including Harbaugh in this category -- Tolzien is hyper competitive.

-- Matt Barrows



MATTHEW 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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