SANTA CLARA Hate it when controversies from 2 1/2 months ago are resurrected? Blame Jim Harbaugh for this one.
As reporters were stepping away from their weekly group session with Harbaugh on Wednesday, the 49ers coach said he wanted to clarify a misperception he's been hearing since March: The 49ers were pursuing then-free-agent quarterback Peyton Manning, who, during one of the biggest sagas of the NFL's offseason, narrowed his options to the 49ers, the Titans and his ultimate choice, the Broncos.
"It's an erroneous perception that we were flirting with Peyton Manning. I keep hearing that over and over again," Harbaugh said. "It's silly, and it's untrue. It's phony. Even the perception that we were pursuing him. We were evaluating him. I've said all along, Alex Smith has been our quarterback. There's been no scenario, other than Alex choosing to sign with another team, that we would have considered him not as our quarterback."
In early March, with free agency under way, the 49ers hadn't signed Smith despite assurances from Smith and the team that he would be back after his best season in seven years.
During the impasse, Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman flew to North Carolina to watch Manning work out. After news of that visit became public, and while Manning was deliberating, Smith made the only free-agent visit of his career, to Miami. He also had planned a trip to Seattle, but the Seahawks signed free agent Matt Flynn instead.
Smith on Wednesday was in lockstep with his coach, dismissing the Miami trip as merely "the business side" of the game and saying he would have competed with Manning for the starting job had the four-time NFL MVP chosen San Francisco.
"I certainly felt like this was my job to compete for, no question," Smith said. "I felt like what we accomplished last year that I deserved that."
Smith ultimately settled for a three-year deal worth $24 million, similar to what Flynn who has two career starts received from the Seahawks. In addition, the 49ers easily could part ways with Smith after this season, making the deal essentially a one-year contract.
Smith said Harbaugh kept him informed throughout the Manning drama and that he knew about Harbaugh's and Roman's trip to North Carolina.
Harbaugh, meanwhile, insisted Smith was the quarterback the 49ers wanted on the roster in 2012 and the team merely was evaluating whether Manning would be a good fit. He implied that the 49ers would have had trouble fitting Manning, who signed a five-year, $96 million deal in Denver, under the salary cap.
"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," Harbaugh said. "Hopefully, that sets the record straight."
But the 49ers knew all along what Manning's asking price would be, and they did not pull out of the running for Manning until Manning called Harbaugh and told him he was choosing the Broncos.
"That's accurate," Harbaugh said when asked whether Manning called him. "Like I said, he chose the Denver Broncos, and I wish him well."
According to a source involved with the Manning saga, Manning initiated contact with the 49ers and the Texans. The Texans ultimately chose not to pursue Manning. The 49ers, meanwhile, flew to North Carolina to meet with Manning, who sat out the 2011 season after neck surgery, and watched him throw.
"We thought that was a critical thing to do," Harbaugh said. "He's coming off of a season where he's 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. We wish him nothing but success."
Why would Harbaugh want to retell and relive the story in late May when the 49ers are in the middle of spring practices? That's up for conjecture. But as he tried to minimize the team's interest in Manning, he also was pumping up Smith, something he did constantly last season.
The message: We are still one, big happy family.
"Alex Smith is our quarterback, was our quarterback, and we had every intention of bringing him back," Harbaugh said. "There would be no circumstance that we would have let Alex Smith go."
Editor's note: This story was changed May 31 to correct the time element in the first paragraph to 2 1/2 months.