Jim Harbaugh today buried the lead. As his 13-minute group session with reporters was winding down, he -- out of the blue -- said he wanted to clarify a misperception that he's been seeing since March: That the 49ers were pursuing then-free agent quarterback Peyton Manning, who narrowed his options to the 49ers, the Titans and his ultimate choice, the Broncos.
"It's an erroneous perception that we were flirting with Peyton Manning. I keep hearing that over and over again," Harbaugh said. "It's silly, and it's untrue. It's phony. Even the perception that we were pursuing him ... we were evaluating him. I've said all along, Alex Smith has been our quarterback. There's been no scenario, other than Alex choosing to sign with another team, that we would have considered him not as our quarterback."
Two months ago, free agency had gotten underway and the 49ers still hadn't signed Smith despite the fact that Smith, coming off his best season in seven years, said he wanted to be back and the 49ers also wanted to return. While Manning was deliberating on his landing spot, Smith made the only free-agent visit of his career, to Miami. He also had planned a trip to Seattle, but the Seahawks signed free agent Matt Flynn instead.
Smith on Wednesday dismissed the Miami trip. "That's what free agency is," he said. And he said that he would have competed with Manning had the 49ers signed him. "I certainly felt like this was my job to compete for, no question," Smith said. "I felt like what we accomplished last year - that I deserved that."
Smith ultimately settled for a three-year deal worth $24 million. The 49ers, however, easily could part ways with Smith after this season, making the deal essentially a one-year contract.
Smith said that Harbaugh kept him informed of the team's thought process throughout and that he knew about the trip Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman made to Duke University to watch Manning throw the ball.
Harbaugh implied that the 49ers ultimately would have had difficulty signing Manning. "Now, were we out there seeing, evaluating if we could have them both? Heck ya," Harbaugh said. "You evaluate that, you eliminate that. Further evidence - we would not have given any player that was out there in free agency a sixth of our salary cap and let six or seven of our own guys go. Hopefully that sets the record straight."
However, the 49ers knew what Manning's asking price would be all along. Furthermore, they did not pull out of the running for Manning until Manning called Harbaugh and told him he was choosing the Broncos. "That's accurate," Harbaugh said. "Like I said. He chose the Denver Broncos, and I wish him well."
According to a source who was accurate throughout the Manning saga, it was Manning who contacted the 49ers and expressed interest. In fact, Manning contacted two teams, the 49ers and the Texans. The Texans ultimately chose not to pursue the free agent quarterback. The 49ers, meanwhile, flew to North Carolina to begin what Harbaugh is now calling "an evaluation."
"We thought that was a critical thing to do," he said. "He's (Manning) coming off of a season where he's injured and he didn't play. He's going to be a fine player in the National Football League. And he made the best decision for himself, going to the Denver Broncos. We wish him nothing but success."
Asked if the 49ers would have been unable to fit Manning under the salary cap, Harbaugh said: "It's not your right or anybody else's right to know exactly what those implications would have been. But you can understand. We weren't .... The best fit for us was Alex Smith. And we weren't going to give up a sixth of our salary cap to anybody. Because we like six or seven of the guys we've got on our current team that much."
So why would Harbaugh resurrect this story two and a half months later and do so unprompted? That's anyone's guess. Maybe he read something on the subject - on Twitter, perhaps -- and truly wanted to set the record straight. Or maybe he felt he needed to reassure Smith, who certainly doesn't seem as if he needs any reassurance.
Or maybe he's merely gearing up for the season by getting into we-are-family mode.
"Alex Smith is our quarterback, was our quarterback and we had every intention of bringing him back," Harbaugh said. "There would be no circumstance that we would have let Alex Smith go."
-- Matt Barrows