NFL

No lie, Harbaugh was up front

Image: San Francisco 49ers QB Alex Smith (© Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports)
Alex Smith led San Francisco to the NFC Championship Game last season.
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John Czarnecki

John Czarnecki has been the editorial consultant for "FOX NFL Sunday" since its 1994 inception. This season marks Czarnecki's 32nd year covering the NFL. He is one of 44 selectors to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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I will say this about Jim Harbaugh: He doesn’t care what our perception of him is. The San Francisco 49ers head coach is not losing an ounce of sleep over the belief he told a lie regarding his team’s curious inspection of Peyton Manning this offseason.

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Harbaugh, whose team is stuck with Alex Smith for at least another year, recently volunteered “to come clean” on why he and offensive coordinator Greg Roman secretly flew to Duke University last March to watch Manning throw passes while the front office was still finagling with Smith on a contract extension. Plus, during those weeks of apparent 49ers indecision, Smith checked out whether the Miami Dolphins really had some interest in him, too.

“There’s a perception out there, and it’s an erroneous perception, that we were flirting with Peyton Manning,” Harbaugh said. “I keep hearing it over and over. It’s silly, and it’s untrue. It’s phony. Even the perception that we were pursuing . . . we were evaluating.”

On the surface, it made total sense that Harbaugh should have been evaluating Manning. Smith may have turned the corner on his career last season – anyone who saw his win over the New Orleans Saints in the playoffs will admit that — but no one would say he’s even a top-15 NFL quarterback. There isn’t a fan in the world — except possibly Smith family members — who would pick him over Manning, one of the game’s greatest quarterbacks.

In the biggest game of his life, Smith completed 9 of 18 passes for 113 yards and a touchdown in the second half and overtime of the NFC Championship Game against the New York Giants. Those are first-quarter numbers of a typical Manning game. Smith was also sacked three times and then watched Kyle Williams fumble the punt that helped punch New York’s Super Bowl ticket.

Granted, there is high hope in 49ers land that Smith will improve on last season’s career-best numbers — 61.3 completion percentage, 90.7 quarterback rating and 17 touchdowns vs. five interceptions — with improved play from his receivers, namely an invigorated Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, the former Giants player who made the improbable sideline catch in the Super Bowl victory. With the game on the line last season, Smith’s best weapon was tight end Vernon Davis. Former No. 1 pick Michael Crabtree simply couldn’t get open enough.

In this age of the 24-hour news cycle, there is generally no hiding from the media. In the Manning situation, he was represented by Tom Condon, who also happens to be Smith’s agent. Condon would have to be disloyal if he didn’t keep Smith informed that he might lose his San Francisco job. He owed the kid that much.

Although Manning looked better than expected in mid-March, his arm strength still wasn’t near what it is today in Denver. A coach had to take a leap of faith with Manning. You had to believe that the four-time MVP would keep getting better and better. Denver Broncos vice president John Elway was desperate to believe that because he wanted to jettison Tim Tebow for a conventional quarterback.

Harbaugh now claims that he wasn’t in the same situation. He was simply checking his options. And let’s also be honest: Harbaugh and Roman and the rest of the coaching staff totally understand Smith’s talent limitations while loving his spirit and positive intangibles. They believe they can win with Smith as long as that defense continues to be the best in the NFL and Frank Gore stays healthy. Of course, with Manning, nothing less than a championship would have been expected in San Francisco.

But I do believe Harbaugh when he says there was no way San Francisco was going to sign Manning for $18 million. Elway set the financial parameters early on — didn’t I say Denver was desperate? — and the 49ers would have probably had to pay more than that because Peyton didn’t want to play in the same conference as his younger brother Eli.

Hey, Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt wanted Peyton, too. But when he checked with his front office, he discovered they weren’t willing to write the check.

I’m not convinced Jed York, under the watchful eye of father John, would have written Peyton a check for $20 million, either. Or about what they are paying Smith for three seasons! (It’s really $24 million for three.)

Harbaugh’s principal contention is that the 49ers always wanted to sign Smith first, although we know that the organization never told their quarterback that they were checking out Manning. Smith was more than slightly peeved over that turn of events, but he really didn’t have any options.

In a somewhat orchestrated presentation, Smith was brought before the local reporters after Harbaugh denounced his pursuit of Peyton.

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“They’ve been up front from the beginning, constantly in talks with me and negotiating with me and that was never off the table,” Smith said. “It was simply a fact that, you know, potentially I was going to have to compete with somebody and he’d earned the right to compete for the job and this was my job to compete for.”

Personally, given Harbaugh’s personality, I’m not convinced he and Peyton would have been a good fit. How many Type A personalities can one room take? Elway is comfortable around Peyton because, deep down, he knows he was a better quarterback. There’s no way Harbaugh could feel the same way.

But back to the money.

The Broncos are on the hook for Manning’s salaries of $20 million each in 2013 and 2014 if he’s on their roster in March of next year. They can be off the hook for the 2014 salary if he suffers another serious neck injury in 2013.

“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,” Harbaugh said. “Yeah, like I said there was interest and we evaluated it and there were (contract) conversations. I’m not going to go into all those personal conversations.”

No one knows why Harbaugh decided to reveal his version of these Manning events. Maybe he wanted to defend his quarterback from the Twitter barbs from Carolina linebacker Jon Beason, who basically said Smith wasn’t in Cam Newton’s league. Whatever his reason, Harbaugh isn’t afraid to answer for himself, and that’s a good thing for all of us.

Tagged: Broncos, Jets, 49ers, Peyton Manning, Alex Smith, Tim Tebow

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