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49ers play tricky game courting Manning while not alienating Smith

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist

The 49ers could end up not landing Manning (right) and lose Smith (left) to another team. (US Presswire)  
The 49ers could end up not landing Manning (right) and lose Smith (left) to another team. (US Presswire)  

If Peyton Manning chooses San Francisco, the 49ers -- not the New York Giants or Green Bay Packers -- become the landslide favorite to win the next Super Bowl.

But what happens if Manning chooses Denver or Tennessee instead? What then? Well, then the San Francisco 49ers must swing into serious damage control.

First, they must pledge their allegiance to free-agent quarterback Alex Smith -- again -- and that might not be as difficult as it seems. Smith returned to the team a year ago even though the 49ers drafted quarterback Colin Kaepernick and even though it appeared Kaepernick, not Smith, would be incoming coach Jim Harbaugh's starter when the 2011 season ended.

Of course, that never happened, but that's not the point. Smith came back when common sense said it was a bad idea, and he came back because he liked what he heard from Harbaugh, believed he would start and believed he could win.

All that's changed since is the 49ers' infatuation with Manning, and that's understandable. He's a future Hall of Famer. Alex Smith is not. So the club isn't just looking into upgrading the position; it's looking into adding one of the game's best and brightest quarterbacks.

Yeah, I know, it was Harbaugh who last month declared Smith was "our guy," insisting that the organization was "in lockstep" on that score. But that was before Manning became a free agent. Things change, and when Smith didn't sign a reported three-year, $24 million offer the 49ers made, the club turned up the heat by chasing Manning.

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Nevertheless, it's a tricky game they play because of the collateral damage if they don't wind up with Manning -- and, yes, it's Smith I have in mind. I don't know what he thinks of the Manning-to-San Francisco talk, but he's at least checking his options by visiting Miami -- Seattle came off his list with Matt Flynn's deal Sunday -- and good for him.

He should.

San Francisco had better hope nothing happens between now and when Manning reaches a decision. Because if Manning spurns the 49ers, they must make nice -- and quickly -- with Smith.

My guess is that they resume negotiations, hoping to persuade Smith -- as Harbaugh did last season -- that San Francisco is the right place for him. It was in his only year under Harbaugh, with Smith playing so well he produced career highs in almost every category and finished third in the league's Comeback Player of the Year voting.

He was the perfect fit for San Francisco, much as Trent Dilfer was with the 2000 Baltimore Ravens. He didn't make mistakes, he provided invaluable leadership, his teammates believed in him, and he made plays when he had to.

But Smith is a more talented quarterback now than Dilfer was then, and he demonstrated it in the playoff defeat of New Orleans when he twice rallied the 49ers from behind in the last 2½ minutes.

When he was ineffective one week later, critics charged that he kept the 49ers from their first Super Bowl since 1994. No he didn't. Last time I checked, it wasn't Alex Smith who lost that game; it was a couple of muffed punt returns.

Granted, he didn't do much. But tell me who did vs. the Giants in the playoffs. Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady combined for 37 points in offense -- none by Ryan.

I understand Alex Smith is not Peyton Manning. But he was good enough to take the 49ers to their first winning season since 2002. He was good enough to get them this close to the Super Bowl. He doesn't have to like what's happening here, but he should understand the situation.

And the reality is this: If Peyton Manning doesn't wind up in San Francisco, Alex Smith should. The 49ers won with him last season, and they can win again.

OK, so the promising Kaepernick is always there, but the guy has a pro resume that includes three passes. With Kaepernick, you think you can win; with Alex Smith, you know.

In visiting Miami, maybe Smith is exercising leverage, trying to make the 49ers rethink what happens if they whiff on Manning. All I know is that San Francisco better hope that's all it is. Because if the 49ers miss on Smith and Manning, it's not damage control it must worry about.

It's another quarterback.


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