Let me set the record straight: I am not saying that Jim Harbaugh is lying. That's an erroneous perception.
And therefore something Harbaugh knows about.
"It's an erroneous perception that we were flirting with Peyton Manning," Harbaugh, head coach of San Francisco, volunteered to reporters last week. "I keep hearing that over and over again. It's silly, and it's untrue. It's phony. Even the perception that we were pursuing him. We were evaluating him. I've said all along, Alex Smith has been our quarterback. There's been no scenario, other than Alex choosing to sign with another team, that we would have considered him not as our quarterback."
Before Manning chose Denver as his new home, Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman flew to North Carolina to watch the former Indianapolis Colt work out -- sneaking up to the field in hoodies to get a closer look without being recognized by fans -- but had no real interest in signing the future Hall of Famer.
No, they remained committed to a quarterback who until 2011 had more career interceptions than touchdown passes.
Fact: San Francisco didn't negotiate a new deal with Smith until after Manning said yes to the Broncos, and Manning, no dummy, certainly thought the Niners coach was courting him.
"I wish I hadn't gotten so close to [Titans head coach Mike Munchak]," Manning said after signing with Denver. "That was a tough call. Same with Jim Harbaugh."
Now, I understand why the second-year coach offered his revisionist history. A quarterback's psyche can be as delicate as a robin's egg, and Smith enters the 2012 season with the memory of only one successful campaign in his seven-year career.
Thus, Harbaugh's nurturing of Smith calls for pretending -- yes, that's a nice word -- that the 49ers wouldn't have dumped Smith and his 74.6 career passer rating for Manning's 94.9 rating in a hummingbird heartbeat, even considering Manning's age (36) and the fact that he's coming off neck surgery.
While Harbaugh was donning a hoodie to get a better look at Manning, Smith, also a free agent, flew to Miami to talk with the Dolphins. He also had a trip to Seattle scheduled before the Seahawks signed former Packer Matt Flynn. The South Beach visit was the right and obvious move for Smith, and the message to Harbaugh was, "Flirt with Peyton, will you? Well, I've got options of my own."
Now, however, Smith is willing to assume the role of Harbaugh's co-conspirator: He says that the trek to Miami was merely "the business side" of the game and that he intended to stay with the Niners all along, even if they had signed Manning -- which, his coach insists, they had no real thought of doing.
What do I think of Harbaugh's story? Well, to choose words from the coach's own mouth:
But I am not saying that Jim Harbaugh is lying.
That's an erroneous perception.
Contact Jim Gordon at email@example.com.
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