SANTA CLARA What two weeks ago would have been unthinkable inched another step closer to reality Sunday: Alex Smith playing for a team other than the 49ers for the 2012 season.
Smith took a red-eye flight from San Francisco to South Florida early Sunday, then spent 5 1/2 hours meeting with Dolphins officials. A report in the Denver Post had Smith negotiating with the Dolphins for a multiyear deal that's worth $8 million a year.
Smith also had intended to visit the Seattle Seahawks, another team in need of a starting quarterback. Seattle, however, announced that they had signed Green Bay Packers free agent Matt Flynn to a three-year deal worth as much as $26 million, according to reports out of Seattle.
San Francisco, meanwhile, is resting its hopes on landing the biggest free agent on the market, Peyton Manning, who is currently deciding among the 49ers, Tennessee Titans and Denver Broncos. A decision could come as early as today.
If Manning picks the 49ers, Smith surely will play elsewhere next season, and it's now clear that the Dolphins are his top option. Miami pursued Manning early on, but the quarterback last week informed the team that it was out of the running.
The Dolphins also had hoped to sign Flynn, who visited on Saturday. Miami's current quarterbacks are Matt Moore and Pat Devlin, a rookie in 2011.
When the 2011 season ended, Smith was considered a lock to sign a new, multi-year deal with the 49ers. He started all 18 games and finishing with the best statistics of his career, including a league low five interceptions.
He had the strong backing of coach Jim Harbaugh, and both he and team officials suggested that hashing out a deal was a formality.
Harbaugh and Smith carpooled to a pro-am golf tournament at Pebble Beach last month; Smith even served as Harbaugh's caddie for a day.
"Obviously, Alex is as high a priority as anyone on our team," Harbaugh said at the time of re-signing Smith, adding that the organization was in "lock-step" in their commitment to Smith moving forward. But despite a three-year offer reportedly for $24 million Smith didn't sign the deal for reasons that are thus far unknown.
"This is the NFL. I guess nothing surprises me anymore," Smith told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel on Sunday. "I never thought a year ago (Peyton) Manning would be a free agent, either. I'm never surprised by anything."
Smith has had two other chances to leave the 49ers, and despite rocky seasons and soured relationships with coaches, he's remained because he's felt a sense of duty after the 49ers chose him No. 1 overall in 2005.
Smith has started a family in the Bay Area, he has many close friends on the 49ers, and his best chance of starting in 2012 is in San Francisco. The 49ers remain an option if Manning signs elsewhere.
What would the 49ers do in a scenario in which Manning goes to Tennessee or Denver and Smith signs with the Dolphins?
The team traded up in the second round of the draft last year to select quarterback Colin Kaepernick and may turn the offense over to him. Kaepernick was in for just 20 snaps last season and threw only five passes.
Manning's destination also could dislodge a veteran quarterback. If he chooses Tennessee, that might prompt the Titans to release last year's starter, Matt Hasselbeck. The 49ers tried to sign Hasselbeck last year even after they had signed Smith to a one-year deal.
Free agents David Garrard and Josh Johnson, who played for Harbaugh at the University of San Diego, are other free-agent options.