The NFL is a dirty business. Bounties get paid for injuring players. Pain shots are given when injuries need masking. Teams will do whatever it takes to win. Football is the most lucrative business in the North American sports world, and while fans revel in the beauty and poetry that is the NFL season, there is a dark side as well.
Just ask Alex Smith. San Francisco’s favorite punching bag wrote his most triumphant chapter to date in 2011 after Jim Harbaugh came to town. Six years of buses rolling over the oft-troubled first overall pick time and again finally ended, and from the Harbaugh-Smith relationship grew an amazing story. Fans dreamed of Smith playing elsewhere for years, but with some careful psychology that even the best marriage counselor would envy, Harbaugh found away to groom the beaten-down quarterback into a confident winner. It seemed all but certain that Alex Smith would return to San Francisco in 2012 with a head of steam, ready to double his strides en route to something even more special.
Not so fast. Into the Peyton Manning sweepstakes entered the 49ers, and all those flowery feelings are suddenly out the window. Now Alex Smith is considering becoming a Dolphin or perhaps a Seahawk, and that heartwarming story of a coach-quarterback connection is being replaced with a much more cold and grey feeling. This is the NFL, where feelings always take a backseat to winning, or at least the idea of winning.
The resurrection of the 49ers is in full swing. They were killed and reborn with the firing of Steve Mariucci and the hiring of Dennis Erickson. Between 2003 and 2010, the 49ers were like an infant – drooling on themselves and grasping for a helping hand. Completely devoid of self-sufficiency. They suffered their bumps and bruises as did their fans, as the 49ers were still far from learning how to walk on their own.
Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke brought on adolescence. As the 49ers started making the right moves, it seemed that they were finally turning the corner. The Smith-Harbaugh relationship was a beautiful thing. Alex matured before our eyes, in perfect lockstep with the team. Always humble and accountable, he was the quiet leader of this team. We all smiled and entertained the possibility that Smith would hoist a Lombardi trophy for San Francisco. The belief that coaching was the problem all along would finally have proven true – he just needed the right man to show him the way and he would shine.
That explains why the 49ers’ pursuit of Peyton Manning seems so dirty. The dark side of Jim Harbaugh is intrinsically linked to his unquenchable desire to win, a desire so great he will break even his strongest loyalties in order to gain a competitive edge. He wanted to prove he could transform Alex Smith. For now he has thrown that project away in favor of having a proven winner at the helm.
The fans have fallen into a similar brand of mania. It’s intoxicating, this idea of having a Hall-of-Fame quarterback like Manning. Forget how you wept at the resilience Alex Smith displayed when he threaded that pass to Vernon Davis for the win; you could have Peyton Manning making Michael Crabtree a Pro Bowler. You take that and run with it, especially after seven years of No. 11, right?
Perhaps, but should the 49ers sign Peyton Manning, innocence will be lost in San Francisco. After almost a decade of trying, they will have finally given up on the Alex Smith Project. Should the Lombardi trophy return to San Francisco, it will be more about Peyton getting his second than the 49ers getting their sixth. Harbaugh’s loyalty will be exposed as an illusion.
But that’s the National Football League. Not even a month ago we watched Manning tear up at the podium as HIS Indianapolis Colts said their final goodbyes, tossing him away for something new and improved. Now Alex Smith may face the same fate in San Francisco. Whether it pays off – or even happens for that matter – is yet to be written. But one thing is certain: the 49ers, in an effort to win at any cost, are no longer infants in their quest for NFL resurrection.