Joe-Pinions: Sports

20 Mar 2012 – 49ers Fail to Land Manning: The Ongoing Aftermath

Posted in Football (NFL) by txtmstrjoe on 20/03/2012

After months of Head Coach Jim Harbaugh‘s public declarations that incumbent starting quarterback Alex Smith was “our guy,” the San Francisco 49ers pulled a monumental surprise from out of the blue.  They took a swing at landing the biggest free agent in perhaps the entire history of the NFL, 4-time MVP and 1-time Super Bowl winning quarterback Peyton Manning.

And the 49ers missed.

It was a move that I had a lot of misgivings about.

The fact that they even considered going after Manning was stupidly risky.  As I wrote before, signing Peyton Manning was a very risky maneuver even if (or maybe especially if) they managed to get his signature on a contract.  I don’t know about you, but I just cannot purge the image of Manning crumpled on the field after one too many hits.  I’d just as soon not see this happen, but especially with Manning’s #18 on a 49er red or white jersey.

Then you’ve got to consider the collateral damage done to the relationship – business, personal, whatever – the team’s leadership, especially Jim Harbaugh, did not just to “their guy” Alex Smith, but to the rest of the team as well.  To my mind, you simply cannot underestimate the amount of doubt chasing Manning must have created in the minds of each and every player in the 49er locker room.  I don’t know about you, but whatever the realities of life might be, I don’t ever want to be thought of as just an unfeeling part of a machine, a replaceable, dispensable object once my usefulness has been squeezed out of me.

I’ve heard the argument that this is business, that this is the reality of being in the NFL.  Be that as it may, but after watching everything that unfolded last year and reading the body language of all the players on the team, it was clear (at least to me) that there was a unique synergy and harmony that tied all the members of that team together.  Team unity and spirit may be abstract concepts to some, but I can tell you from experience that sometimes that’s the difference between high achievement and ignominious, frustrating failure.  Sometimes it’s that fraternal love that teammates have for each other that makes sure you come out on the correct side of the line between victory and disaster when the fire is hottest and the competition is at its fiercest.

It would bear remembering that, except for a few key free agent pickups (Carlos Rodgers, David Akers) and the incoming 2011 rookie class, last year’s 49ers team was the same as the woefully underachieving 2010 team.

And that 2010 team had Alex Smith as its quarterback, even if then-head coach Mike Singletary didn’t really know how to get the best out of him, just like none of the other coaches and coordinators did in Smith’s previous five seasons.

Last year, Smith finally had a season filled not with failure and frustration, but with success and achievement.  No, he didn’t come close to being the NFL’s best passer, accumulating the most passing yards or scoring the most touchdowns.  But, aside from Aaron Rodgers, no quarterback won more games with his team as Alex Smith did (fourteen, the same as Tom Brady).  I don’t know about you, but for me it’s how many games your team wins that’s the all-important statistic to keep track of.

The key to Alex Smith’s transformation from being a borderline bust of a draft pick who tended to lose more games than he won to prolific game winner, clearly, was that in Jim Harbaugh he finally had a coach who knew which mind game to play to get him to perform as a good quarterback should.

From my seat as a mere observer, it looked as if the foundation to Smith and Harbaugh’s relationship was built on something beyond mere Xs and Os, beyond the mere technical aspects of being a quarterback.  How else could you explain the fact that they car-pooled together to celebrity golf tournaments, with Smith agreeing to caddy for Harbaugh on one such day, or for Smith to accept Harbaugh’s richly-deserved NFL Coach of the Year award on his coach’s behalf?

This relationship is very similar to the one Colin Chapman and Jim Clark shared during Lotus‘ glory years in the 1960s.  I realize this is not a football-based analogy, but if you read up on the history between Chapman and Clark, you’ll understand what I’m getting at.

The point is, the relationship between Harbaugh and Smith was beyond mentor and pupil.  It just seemed so symbiotic, so natural.

It all seemed so right.

After the failed attempt to recruit Peyton Manning, though, you now have to wonder about how much damage the 49ers leadership’s credibility has sustained with its players.  Who knows if this will affect the special chemistry so evident in last year’s team, a team that will return for the 2012 season largely intact.

The Niners potentially had a lot to gain by adding Peyton Manning to their roster, which many believe is ripe for a run at the Super Bowl next season.  It was an audacious move, akin to going all-in at the poker table.

A heck of a lot to gain, perhaps, but it’s undeniable that they had a heck of a lot to lose as well.

With Manning committing to the Denver Broncos instead, the 49ers are now left scrambling with a gigantic hole at the starting quarterback position.

And to think everybody thought they had their guy all along.


So what now for the 49ers?

It appears that their best remaining option is to mend the relationship with Alex Smith.  Per some of the reports from the local Bay Area sports media that I’ve been reading, Smith’s misgivings have nothing to do with money.  The Bay Area reporters familiar with Smith universally describe him as an uncomplicated, good, straightforward man who donates a very large portion of his earnings to his charity, the Alex Smith Foundation, which helps teens in foster homes.  Therefore, I don’t believe that throwing more money at Smith is necessarily the salve that would best repair the strained relationship.

The more I think about this entire situation, the more I believe that this has less to do with the harsh, cold world of business and the pragmatic implications of trying to assemble the best football team you possibly can, and much more to do with something more human.

Betrayal, duplicity, naïvety, maybe even immaturity on myriad psychological levels…  all these things seem obviously in play in this particular drama.  Unfortunately, these are the kinds of things that complicate and potentially damage most human relationships.

I don’t know if you can necessarily buy a solution to this kind of problem.

To return to a more purely pragmatic perspective, I believe that Smith and the 49ers will get a deal done.  Indeed, as I write this, reports are coming from the Bay Area that a deal is in the process of being finalized; some sources have even confirmed that it’s all but a done deal bar the obligatory press conference.

However, if such reports are premature and ultimately untrue, well, the 49ers seem short on viable options that are empirically better than what they know Smith can do.

Some have suggested Matt Hasselbeck as a trade target to take Smith’s place; others have mentioned Josh Johnson, who was Jim Harbaugh’s first successful quarterback project from way back in their days as University of San Diego Toreros, as another possibility.  The 49ers’ own backup quarterbacks, second-year men Colin Kaepernick and Scott Tolzien are also possibilities, though Kaepernick and Tolzien are both young and inexperienced.

To me, Smith must be the quarterback for the 49ers.  Continuity, more precisely the lack thereof, has forever been the excuse for Smith’s previous lack of sustained success; the thing about continuity is that it is a two-way street.  For the 49ers to start anew with a new quarterback with their offensive system is risking breaking that continuity.  Even if they hand the keys to the offense to either Kaepernick or Tolzien, neither one was the team’s starting quarterback last year.  Given their inexperience, they will have much to learn.  The problem would be compounded if the team brought in a completely new signal-caller.

For all of Smith’s history and his almost-trademark lack of flash, there is plenty to like in him not just as a person, but as a quarterback as well.  His athleticism is underestimated, and his toughness – physical, mental, psychological – are hugely impressive.  He may not have the strongest arm out there, but it’s strong enough.  His accuracy is sometimes spotty, but his performance throughout all of last year shows that he has improved greatly in this aspect of the game.  He has the reputation for not being too good at reading defenses, but perhaps throwing only five interceptions over an entire season might help you change your mind about this point.

For all the crap that he’s taken (and still continues to take – I am ASTOUNDED at just how much Alex Smith seems to be hated in San Francisco within the 49ers’ own fan base), if there is any semblance of justice and fairness in this life, just once I’d love to see Alex Smith prove all the haters wrong and lead this team further than he did even last year.  In 2011 the San Francisco 49ers were two fumbles and a bungled non-call on a fumble away from competing for a sixth Super Bowl; if they had gotten to the big game, I had no doubts whatsoever that they would have beaten the New England Patriots.

Nothing would make this San Francisco 49ers fan happier than to see Alex Smith join Steve Young and Joe Montana as 49ers quarterbacks who led my beloved NFL team to a Super Bowl victory.


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