Harbaugh, broaching the subject without ever being asked, insisted the 49ers planned to have Smith as their quarterback all along even while they examined the possibility in March of signing Manning, who had recently been released by the Indianapolis Colts.
Harbaugh had just finished fielding questions and was completing his comment regarding when he’d seen Sopoaga throw the football for the first time.
“Oh, and one other thing,” Harbaugh said without provocation.
Then the coach launched into a discourse regarding “the erroneous perception that we were flirting with Peyton Manning.”
Harbaugh called the reports silly and phony, then spoke at length about his and the team’s ongoing support for Smith, who last season helped the 49ers reach the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
"There's a perception out there, and it's an erroneous perception, that we were flirting with Peyton Manning,” Harbaugh began. “ I keep hearing that over and over and over again. It's silly. And it's untrue. It's phony. Even the perception we were pursuing him. We were evaluating him.
“I’ve said it all along. Alex Smith has been our quarterback. There’s no scenario, other than Alex choosing to sign with another team, that we would have considered him not as our quarterback. And don’t like to compare or talk about somebody else that’s on another team, but in this case it’s time to set the record straight.
“Alex Smith is our quarterback, was our quarterback, and had every intention of always bringing him back. There would be no circumstance that we would have let Alex Smith go. Now, were we out there seeing, evaluating if we could have them both? Heck yeah. And you evaluate that, you eliminate the possibility. And further evidence, we would not have given any player that was out there in free agency a sixth of our salary cap, and let six, or seven of our own guys go here. So, hopefully that sets the record straight and you don’t have to keep reporting the silliness and phoniness.”
That sudden, unprovoked outburst brought a flurry of follow-up questions and this exchange between Harbaugh and reporters:
Q: Did he contact you guys then and express interest in joining the 49ers? Is that how it went?
Harbaugh: Yeah, like I said, there was interest and we evaluated it, pursued it, further evaluated it and there was conversations. I’m not going to go into all those personal conversations, but there was nothing said to Alex that was not said to Peyton Manning or in house here, on the record, off the record. Both those young men knew exactly what our intentions were. And I was very clear about that, that Alex Smith would be back here as our quarterback in 2012, if we could make that signing. We said the same thing to Alex as we said to Peyton.”
Q: Was Alex going to Miami just a part of the game, with the free agency and seeing what was out there for him?
Harbaugh: Well, he was a free agent. He went on a visit, yes.
Q: When you evaluated Peyton, when you went out to North Carolina, what did you think of him?
Harbaugh: Well, we thought that was a critical thing to do. He’s coming off of a season where he was injured and he didn’t play. He’s going to be a fine player in the National Football League. And he made the best decision for himself going to the Denver Broncos, and we wish him nothing but success. He’ll be good. He’ll be fine.
Q: If he did sign, you would have had to severely adjusted your roster to fit him under with his salary obligation?
Harbaugh: “We’re not going into all the… it’s not your right, or anybody else’s right to know exactly what those implications would have been. But, you could understand the best fit for us was Alex Smith. And we weren’t going to give a sixth of our salary cap to anybody out there. We like six or seven of the guys we’ve got on this current team that much.
Q: If Peyton had said he wanted to come though, would Alex still have been here as well?
Harbaugh: That would have been the hope, yeah. Like I said, there was no scenario where we weren’t going to have Alex Smith on this team if we could help it. Now, you don’t control all those factors, so I think that’s very clear, very concise. Hopefully everybody can understand that.
Q: One more thing on the clarification because from what we inferred, was when he decided on Denver he contacted you personally to tell you he was going to go to Denver instead of coming here, or that he was not interested? That’s one of the perceptions. Is that accurate, or no?
Harbaugh: That’s accurate. That’s accurate. Like I said, Peyton chose the Denver Broncos and we wish him well.
The 49ers were among a handful of teams looking at Manning, an 11-time Pro Bowl quarterback who already is considered a sure Hall-of-Famer and perhaps the best quarterback in NFL history.
At one point, Harbaugh and other team officials flew to North Carolina to watch Manning work out on the Duke campus. Manning later chose the Broncos, telephoning Harbaugh personally to inform him of his decision.
In an interview after he signed with the Broncos, Manning said, “When the two of us started to talk, I very easily could have seen myself being a 49er. That’s why it was so hard.”
It also was widely reported that Harbaugh, a former NFL quarterback, threw with Manning during one of the workout sessions in North Carolina.
Harbaugh, though, said the 49ers were only examining Manning and that their interest in him didn’t go much further than that.
Smith, who met briefly with the Miami Dolphins, wound up signing a three-year, $24 million contract to remain in San Francisco only a few days after Manning agreed to a $96 million, five-year contract with the Broncos that will pay him a guaranteed $18 million this season.
Smith was caught off-guard when asked about the topic Wednesday, something he first talked about when he signed his new contract in late March.
“Yeah a little bit, a little surprised,” Smith said.
Smith, the first overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft, had completed practice and was working out with a few teammates in the 49ers’ on-field weight room when Harbaugh made his comments. The 49ers coach later walked over and knelt beside Smith, who smiled as the two men spoke.
“Coach Harbaugh, from the day I’ve been here, has been completely honest,” Smith said. “I certainly felt like this was my job to compete for, no question. I feel like what we accomplished last year that I deserved that.”
Smith said the team had been up front with him regarding its intentions with Manning and that the two sides remained in contact throughout the entire process.
“I mean, a month prior to any of the Peyton Manning stuff (they) had been negotiating with me to come back and (sign) a new contract,” Smith said. “When that arose, they were honest. I knew they were going to see him, check him out, do their due diligence.”
But apparently, it would be “erroneous” and “phony” to suggest that “due diligence” is to be confused with “flirting” or “even the perception (the Niners) were pursuing” Peyton Manning.
So there. Now you have it straight. Right from Harbaugh himself.
And you know he’s not a guy to flirt around the subject.