On Jan. 14, Ted Robinson ordered everyone listening to “never doubt Alex Smith again.” On Jan. 22, despite the 49ers’ play-by-play announcer’s instructions, the doubts were back. Such is life for any quarterback who wears the red and gold. Super Bowl or bust, and that’s never going to change.

This isn’t to say Smith’s the epitome of quarterback perfection, but he led a team that won 14 games. While the defense and special teams carried them, Smith also saved the 49ers’ bacon on numerous occasions at the ends of games.

Several quarterbacks in the league (not just the so-called “elite” ones) can seemingly thread the needle on 15-yard third down passes at will, but make frequent errors during crisis situations that don’t show up on your fantasy team’s scoresheet. Smith’s shortcomings are more in your face — in the form of passes that hit the hands of opposing defensive linemen or land at the feet of frustrated receivers. Still, Smith played nearly turnover-free football in 2011 and has mobility…

The question before the season is the same today for Alex skeptics: how do you get a better quarterback in a league that probably only features about a half dozen — 10 at the absolute most — that fit that description? With Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts looking likelier and likelier to part ways in a month and a half, the Niners are considered a plausible (and desirable!) destination. On the surface, a healthy Manning would make the 49ers a better team. If there’s a guy who can complete long passes on third down who isn’t entrenched as the starter somewhere else in 2012, it’s Manning.

But at what cost? 

– Manning clearly, like almost all of us, likes his money — or did you think he did all those commercials for free?

– Smith isn’t going to be all that expensive relative to other starting quarterbacks. A deal in the 2-3 years, $8-$11 million per year range should suffice.

– With the Jets, Dolphins and Cardinals probably interested in Manning (along with several other teams if he indeed becomes available), Manning is going to get more than $10 million per year, even as a 36-year-old with a neck that’s made out of recycled pieces of Mark DeRosa’s wrist and Stephen Curry’s ankle.

– With this group of free agent wide receivers set to become available (seriously, have you seen this list?) would the 49ers rather have Smith and a new No. 1 or Manning throwing to the current group of wideouts plus a couple middle-of-the-road free agent WRs and a rookie or two? The 49ers have some cap room but they also have several free agents from their 2011 roster they’ll want to bring back. Manning instead of Smith could be the difference between signing Joshua Morgan and Marcus Colston or signing Joshua Morgan and Ted Ginn.

– Smith’s playoff experience illuminated once again how, for the most part, these guys are evaluated on a game-to-game basis. Manning could play incredible football for a week or 10, but if that neck flares up again that could be it. Are the 49ers ready to hand Colin Kaepernick the keys to an offense designed for Manning?

– Multiple neck surgeries.

– Did I mention Manning’s an injury risk?

The moral of the 2011 off-season, and one other lesson

– Remember when 49ers fans were complaining more about the inactivity of their front office than San Francisco Giants fans? “WE NEED TALENT, SIGN SOME FREE AGENTS,” cried many. The Niners were patient, waited out the market and brought in several players who were absolute gems. Diving headlong into the Peyton Manning Auction doesn’t seem like Trent Baalke’s M.O.

– Think the Colts wish they would’ve let Manning go before the 2011 season? Why is he so much more valuable now? He’s a great passer but he’s an absolute statue, and he’ll have to get used to a new offensive line (which in the Niners’ case allowed 44 sacks during the 2011 regular season).

Throw in this point from Mike Florio from the article I linked above …

But here’s where it gets tricky for the 49ers.  With starting quarterback Alex Smith due to be a free agent on March 13 and the Colts not forced to make a decision on Manning until March 8, the 49ers could lose Smith if they don’t move quickly on Manning, who may not be fully healthy at that point.

… and this seem even less like a move the 49ers would make. A lot of people still angry about the NFC Championship Game would probably disagree with me on this, but I’m cool with that.