Manning vs. Smith -- a franchise statement

March 17, 2012, 4:16 pm
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The troubling nature of the 49ers flirtation with Peyton Manning begins and ends here, with this thought:That Alex Smith has never been Mr. Right. That he is simply Mr. Right Now.But that is the nature of football, and not only as Jim Harbaugh perceives it. It is the nature of football, period. Organizations marrying themselves to one player is so contra-indicated as to border on the foolish, as Mannings separation from the Indianapolis Colts reminds us.So Harbaugh turning up to kick the tires on Manning, as the saying goes, is merely one more reminder not to Smith alone but to all of us that nobody is safe in the sport built on the most primal laws of Darwinism. Break a player, get a new one. See a drill in the window that works better than your, get it.Put it this way: If Harbaugh thought there was a better linebacker than Patrick Willis, hed seek that out, too.
Harbaugh is a pragmatist with a reptiles blood temperature. He always has been. The great quarterback mastermind won at Stanford with Toby Gerhart as his centerpiece before he won with Andrew Luck. It is why he has a reputation out of size with his deeds to date because he doesnt mind tweaking his system to fit the players in his command.Manning, of course, is a different matter because he plays quarterback, which is the only position many 49er fans acknowledge at all. It is this teams great cultural flaw that it obsesses on its quarterbacks in ways that more traditional markets do not.Thus, Smith was the embodiment of evil when he was quarterbacking a bad team for more coaches than Manning has ever seen, the representative of truth and beauty when the team finally got good last year, and after not winning the NFC title game to a superior New York Giants team, he became Public Enemy No. 1 again.In fact, Smith is and has always been a serviceable quarterback who found a coach who could give his gifts voice in his seventh year. He is not Dan Marino. He is also not Charlie Whitehurst. He is, and take this any way you like, an okay quarterback with a range of results.And take this, too. He did not cost the 49ers the Giants game. The Giants took it. Period.All that said, Manning is worth a free look. The problem becomes in projecting what Harbaugh saw this week with what he would see with angry mesomorphs beating on him relentlessly in the fall and early winter, and at what cost that vision demands.As Comrade Maiocco, a troublesome brute in the best of days, has told us, Denver has more than 40 million in cap space, and the 49ers less than 20 million. Manning has apparently been offered a five-year, 90 million deal from Denver that would essentially Zito-ize the 49er payroll if Manning isnt all that.Thats your downside right there. Its no more elegant than that. The 49ers cannot afford to be wrong with Manning because of the collateral damage. Being right with Manning, of course, speaks for itself, but the question remains a dangler suspended from the front of Harbaughs omnipresent ball cap is there enough Manning for the quick strike that nets a ring?This is, then, a strategic rather than a tactical decision, one that seems financial but in fact is a football call at its most elemental. Jed York seems clearly like the sort who would do and pay anything Harbaugh requested, so hes going to follow the coachs lead, and Trent Baalkes specialty remains the draft.Harbaugh, though, has the decision that makes, breaks or just dents the franchise. The quick hit that is Manning who may or may not be the perfect stroke for the here and now, against the safer and more financially prudent choice that is Smith who, in any event, would always be auditioning for his job no matter what his contract reads.So forget loyalty. Loyalty is always a one-way street in the NFL, and always has been. Players who expect it end up being devastated by its absence. Alex Smith is nobodys yutz he knows the game; he has no right not to know it. So does Peyton Manning, who unlike the 49er fan base is looking at his decision in a far more clinical light, with no interest in or concern for Alex Smith, Tim Tebow, Matt Hasselbeck or, if it came to that, Darian Durant of the Saskatchewan Roughriders.But for a change, the down side of keeping Smith is minimal, whether you want to believe that or not. So this decision becomes the essential Harbaugh tell does he like to go all-in with ace-four unsuited (Manning), or play the percentage with jacks paired (Smith)?The answer will tell you what kind of football executive (as opposed to coach) he is pragmatist with a hint of gambler, or gambler with a hint of pragmatist. Its his call, and his franchise statement.