SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

Coverage of the San Francisco 49ers

49ers' Gamble for Manning Has a Downside

What if team doesn't land ex-Colts star and misses out on Smith, too? Or what if Smith returns, but his relationship with Harbaugh is damaged?

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    Former Colts quarterback Peyton Manning reportedly has narrowed his choices to the 49ers, Titans and Broncos.

    After talking about being methodical and cautious over the past year and a half, the 49ers are acting like 21-year-olds on their first trip to Las Vegas.

    What they have might be good, but suddenly they have the urge to splurge. Cautious has left the building. The Niners’ braintrust is willing to gamble on greatness.

    But what happens if the 49ers bust?

    After building a cohesive team chemistry with a we-first (instead of me-first) mentality, the 49ers signed the proven me-first Randy Moss last week to upgrade the wide receiving corps. Then, news leaked that the 49ers were going hard after free-agent Peyton Manning while in the midst of negotiating a new deal to keep Alex Smith at quarterback.

    Soon, we’ll at least know a little more about the gamble on Manning.

    Perhaps Manning signs with San Francisco, is healthy and makes the 49ers an instant threat to win the Super Bowl. Or, Manning goes somewhere else but Smith re-signs and is the same player he was in 2011, good enough to take the 49ers all the way.

    But the Niners’ new gambling ways could also backfire.

    What if Manning signs elsewhere and Smith decides to sign with the Dolphins – whom he met with Sunday? Suddenly the 49ers have no veteran QB.

    Or what if the 49ers don’t get Manning and re-sign Smith, but Smith’s psyche – often bruised during his rollercoaster first six seasons with the team – is punctured by the team’s lack of faith, and he plays with less confidence than he did last season knowing he wasn’t the team’s first option?

    Under the first scenario, without Manning or Smith, the 49ers would be left with two second-year quarterbacks, Colin Kaepernick and Scott Tolzien. Kaepernick, the team’s second-round pick in 2010, is an athletic QB who put up huge numbers at Nevada, but looked raw in last season’s preseason games and got very little playing time during the regular season. Tolzien, a rookie from Wisconsin who was picked up by the 49ers after he was released by the Chargers, is thought to be promising, but has even less experience than Kaepernick.

    As San Francisco Chronicle columnist Scott Ostler noted, the 49ers “probably feel Kaepernick, 24, is a year or two away from being ready for the starting job, but Kaepernick doesn’t feel that way.” Kaepernick tweeted this weekend, wrote Ostler, that he “wasn’t raised to be #2. I’m coming for that #1 spot.”

    Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk notes the 49ers could also go after a veteran QB who might be available because of the Manning ripple effect – the Titans’ Matt Hasselbeck, for instance, should Manning sign with Tennessee.

    As for the second scenario – Smith returns, but isn’t the same QB – it’s certainly a possibility. The Smith-coach Jim Harbaugh relationship last season was one built on mutual trust and admiration. Harbaugh put Smith in position to play well and win, and Smith delivered. Several times in 2011, Smith led fourth-quarter comebacks. His play late in a playoff victory over the Saints was that of an elite NFL QB.

    In past seasons, under past coaches, Smith struggled under a constant, rotating stream of bosses  and new offensive coordinators while trying to live up to the expectations of the team and fans after he was the first overall selection of the 2005 draft.

    Might this offseason of doubt plant the seeds of past misfortunes, erasing all the good that came in the 2011 season?

    Of course, we won’t know until we see it unfold.

    At least one 49ers follower, however, believes that may not happen. Grant Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat notes that Smith has shown a confidence during this whole process that has made him proactive. Instead of standing idly by to wait what develops with the Manning situation in San Francisco, he’s launched his own quest for a new job.

    “With this stalemate, Smith is demonstrating surprising self-confidence,” Cohn wrote.  “He’s not going back to the Niners with his tail between his legs. It’s as if he really believes he’s elite, and he wants to be paid what he believes is fair. Good for him.”

    Over the next few days, we’ll likely all know Manning’s decision – and some of whatever fallout comes from the 49ers’ willingness to gamble.