What a difference a year makes. If I put up a poll asking whether the San Francisco 49ers should go after Peyton Manning or Alex Smith in free agency (just pretend Manning was available last year), the response wouldn’t just be unanimous in favor of Manning. People would vote for Manning, then jump into the comments and rip me to pieces for even posting such a ludicrous question.

Now, the poll to the right side of the screen shows numbers in favor of Smith (the early returns, anyway).

It’s difficult to remember a local group of fans being in lockstep with coach and general manager as completely as 49ers fans are now. We’d probably have to go back to the days when Bill Walsh effectively handled both duties in the 1980s. After a 13-3 season in which the Niners were a couple breaks away from heading to the Super Bowl and (probably) beating the New England Patriots, tweets like this are met with a nod, a shrug, and hopes that Manning won’t sign with Arizona or Seattle.

 

 

Could this be an example of the 49ers posturing? Sure, but I truly believe they aren’t as interested as many in the media think.

Except for the fact that fewer free agent wide receivers will be available than it seemed at the end of January, everything I wrote in a post titled “Peyton Manning to the 49ers? Not worth it” still stands. Manning is still the same creaky-necked quarterback he was a month and a half ago, the only difference being this video — which some think Manning himself leaked to the public:

 

 

Forget that Manning would cost more than Alex Smith, turns 36 this month, and hasn’t played a game since Jan. 9, 2011 (when his Colts lost 17-16 in the Wild Card round to the New York Jets). This is the NFL, where continuity and chemistry actually matter. After the 49ers scrambled to prepare the team after a lockout and somehow built a winning culture at lightning speed, bringing in Manning would bring an upheaval of similar proportions. Jim Harbaugh would no longer control the message, because with Manning around the national media wouldn’t allow it.

Even if Manning came to San Francisco and toed the company line, the place would be a circus. That’d be fine if they were still the same struggling team from a couple years ago that needed buzz to get headlines with the San Francisco Giants dominating the news.

That’s not the case anymore. The Niners’ road to Santa Clara appears obstacle-free after a judge’s ruling on Monday. The team’s phenomenal front seven — fairly young and absolutely dominant — are all coming back in 2012. The 49ers are built on the Bo Schembechler template, which runs completely counter to the visions of men like Dan Snyder and Rex Ryan. Building an NFL power is difficult to do. Maintaining one is even more difficult.

This isn’t celebrity football, or even fantasy football. It’s about a team where each chess piece has nearly equal value, and adding a King like Manning would change the game. While Manning’s talents are undeniable, Manning-less teams have won the Super Bowl in 13 of the past 14 years.

But hey, the Colts are a team – it wasn’t just Manning’s fault that they didn’t win the Lombardi Trophy more than once, right?

Exactly.

Here’s some complete shot-in-the-dark rankings on where Manning will land

Don’t bet on Manning going to the Seahawks, Cardinals, Dolphins or Redskins (although Snyder will surely do everything he can to add the shiniest free agent toy in franchise history, which says something when you’re talking about Washington, a team addicted to players with name value). Here are the non-Niners teams most likely to pique Manning’s interest.

1. New York Jets

It’s too perfect. Manning vs. Manning, battling for Gotham supremacy. ESPN could virtually ignore the rest of the league, except for when the Jets play the Patriots. Speaking of the Patriots, doesn’t Manning and Tom Brady in the same division make too much sense?

2. Houston Texans

As Michael Silver notes, the Texans probably have the most to offer in terms of a supporting cast and play in the same division as the Colts.

3. Denver Broncos

Another team that would leave ESPN drooling, even if the location isn’t optimal (in their eyes). Manning taking over as John Elway’s dream quarterback, with Tim Tebow ready for when Manning inevitably gets hurt again? It’s like a real-life Saturday Night Live sketch or a commercial. Or an SNL commercial!