Joe-Pinions: Sports

17 Mar 2012 – Harbaugh’s Draw Play: 49ers Join Chase for Peyton Manning

Posted in Football (NFL) by txtmstrjoe on 17/03/2012

Like a well-designed nickel back blitz from the quarterback’s blind side, nobody saw this coming.

I certainly didn’t.

After months of declaring that Alex Smith was their chosen quarterback, the San Francisco 49ers have surprised everybody and have emerged as a surprise suitor for Peyton Manning’s services.

According to ESPN, 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman flew to Durham, N.C., to secretly work out Peyton Manning on Tuesday, March 13, 2012.  Harbaugh and Roman were said to have been suitably impressed with Manning’s workout that they summoned 49ers headquarters for a crew of medical personnel to follow them and conduct a complete physical on the free agent quarterback.  Per all reports, Manning passed the physical.  ESPN revealed the 49ers’ interest in Manning on Friday, March 16.

The news was a shock to everyone following the San Francisco 49ers, including the Bay Area sports press.

ESPN’s revelations of Harbaugh and Roman’s clandestine meeting with Peyton Manning opens up a lot of questions regarding last year’s 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, who, like Manning, is an unrestricted free agent.

Smith is said to have an offer from the 49ers on the table.  Per most reports, it is a three-year contract worth $24 million.  I haven’t read anything about how much of the contract is composed of guaranteed money, as this is the key component of all players contracts in the NFL (the guaranteed portion of the contract, and how it is divided along the length of the contract, defines the player’s “cap value” against each NFL team’s salary cap).  Also unknown are other relevant clauses in the contract, including whether or not the agreement stipulates that Smith will be guaranteed the starting quarterback position.

Despite having had the contract on offer since even before the beginning of the free agency period, Smith has obviously yet to sign the contract.  This is despite the well-documented mutual admiration between Smith, the team’s leaders (including General Manager Trent Baalke and Owner Jed York, as well as Coach Harbaugh), and the players themselves.  Speculation is gathering that one of the reasons for Smith’s reticence to sign the contract on offer is that he was advised to do so by his agent Tom Condon.

Tom Condon is also Peyton Manning’s agent.

Now reports from the Bay Area are coming in that Alex Smith is considering firing Condon as his agent, due to the obvious damage done to not only his relationships with the top brass in San Francisco, but to the possibly irreparable harm to his career in the NFL going forward from this point.

Smith is in a bad position, since he knows that it’s likely that his only shot at future success in the NFL lies with Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers, the team he led into the NFC Championship game and a 14-4 record overall.  He unquestionably had his greatest NFL season in his career, and if he is forced to go elsewhere to play (not to even say start at) quarterback, it will mean yet another change in offensive systems for him to digest.  By not returning to the 49ers, Smith is set up to fail; at the very least, what should have been an easier off-season would again be filled with so much instability and uncertainty.

49ers

I was shocked when I heard about the 49ers’ obviously serious interest in Peyton Manning.  While the elder Manning brother is unquestionably a great quarterback when healthy, there simply are just too many questions surrounding him.  The primary question, of course, has to do with his health.  Manning has undergone four surgeries to his neck to try to correct a degenerative cervical spine injury.  His recovery has been prolonged and complicated – as evidenced by his subsequent surgeries after his first one in May 2011 – and it is completely unknown how his body would react to the typical violence that occurs within the context of each play run in football.

To put things in another way, who knows how Peyton Manning’s body will react if he got hit a certain, random way that would trigger the onset of more neck problems.

It may be that Manning just shrugs off each and every hit, and he is able to continue his aborted iron man streak before his lost 2011 season.

Or, it could be that Peyton Manning gets hit and never gets up to walk ever again.

49ers

The 49ers’ pursuit of Peyton Manning is a high-risk, high-reward tactic.  It reveals Coach Harbaugh’s and the team’s rabid intent to win big and to do so right now.  They know they have a top-level defense, a great coaching staff (that somehow managed to resist getting poached after a great first season), and a strong team chemistry.  There is a weakness on offense, certainly, but I am less sure about whether or not that weakness is necessarily at quarterback.

While Alex Smith will never be Peyton Manning’s equal in terms of generating the kind of gaudy statistics on passing, I think Smith is still the better fit not just for this offense, but for this entire team going forward.  First, I think he is a sure fit in Harbaugh’s professed “blue collar attitude” that he has engendered in this team.  He works hard, he is diligent, he lacks flash, and he gets the job done.  His teammates like him and support him unquestionably; even through the rough times, Alex is thought of as part of the team, one of the guys.  Manning is undoubtedly a hard worker, but he comes in as a star, and he knows it too.  How he would mesh with the rest of the team is a question of great import.  Second, he is familiar with the offensive system.  While Manning can most probably adapt to the 49ers’ offensive system (his is too great a football brain not to), there is a chance that he could demand the 49ers to adapt to his preferred methods of operation.  I have always thought that good coaches are smarter than even great players, and that the power and authority to run systems (both on offense and on defense, in any sport) must always rest in the coach and the coaching staff’s hands.  My great fear is for the 49ers to accede to Manning’s requirement for the 49ers’ offense to run the offense Manning wants to run, which would obviously require the rest of the team to adapt to him.  In my mind, it’s far easier for one man to adapt and change than it is for an entire group to do so.  Football is a team game, and all eleven men on one side must work as one in order for any called play to work as designed.  Third, the 49ers simply need a mobile and athletic quarterback in the backfield.  Not only do some play types demand it (QB keepers, bootlegs, what the late and great Coach Bill Walsh used to call “action passes”), but the QB has to be able to tuck the ball and run when the protection breaks down.  The 49ers O-line can be leaky (they surrendered 44 sacks last year, worst in the NFL), and Manning simply cannot run; Alex Smith can, and do so very well.  And, in my mind at least, this is a recipe for at least a personal disaster for Manning, who I will always think of as just being one hit away from unwanted and enforced retirement from the game.

In my considered opinion, the 49ers’ weaknesses on offense are their lack of playmaking and field-stretching wide receivers to complement tight end Vernon Davis, as well as their suspect offensive line.  Right guard is probably the worst spot on the O-line, so they must get a good man there.  It appears as if the 49ers have a game plan that will see them acquire talent at those particular spots in the upcoming NFL Draft in April.

The starting quarterback spot, though, is now obviously also an area of huge concern.

The 49ers’ gambit of going after Peyton Manning risks a lot, but it’s undeniable that the rewards can be great if the breaks fall their way.  It’s an all-or-nothing kind of move, and if it works, then you can say the risks were worth it.

But walking the high wire going above a ravine over a river filled with man-eating crocodiles without a safety net under you is just too risky for me.

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3 Responses

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  1. Tim said, on 19/03/2012 at 05:43

    Like you, Joe, I don’t question Manning’s pedigree but I do question his ‘fit’ with the Niners. With our sometimes porous O-line, I shudder to think how the relatively immobile Peyton will cope. And we mustn’t forget that he has basically always run the same system at Indy, and even a great QB needs time to adjust to a new system, especially one which isn’t necessarily designed around his strengths. Interesting and potentially exciting, but also hugely concerning. As you say: high-risk/high-reward.

  2. txtmstrjoe said, on 19/03/2012 at 09:09

    Tim, it looks like Mr. Manning has made a choice of team.

    Reports are coming in that Peyton will be playing for Denver starting next year. Although the man himself hasn’t announced it officially as I write this, the source is fairly credible, and (predictably) the report is spreading like wildfire amongst the Bay Area sports press people that I follow on Twitter.

    Per the reports I’m reading, one of the key factors behind Manning’s apparent choice is the idea that he’ll run “his” offense, i.e., he’ll have control of everything up until he lets the ball go. As I’ve written, I have huge misgivings about that approach.

    So now the question is: How hurt is the relationship between Alex Smith and the 49ers brass, and how will that affect everything that happens going forward? I have to believe that all these shenanigans will have some kind of impact.

    Precisely what that impact will be, and how severe its consequences are, will be fascinating (if worrisome to diehards like us, or me, at least) to watch unfold.

    Thanks for the comment! 🙂

  3. […] It was a move that I had a lot of misgivings about. […]


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