Sure, in theory Alex Smith had at least one other employment opportunity, but that’s all it would have been. He could have had a job in Miami, and just a job, a place to continue being a starting quarterback in the NFL.
It would have been simple, clean, and likely profitable. But it wouldn’t have been an opportunity to excel and find redemption for a season that came a few fumbles away from a Super Bowl berth.
Miami was merely a pawn in Smith’s free agency game of chicken with 49ers general manager Trent Baalke, a game that concluded last night when the 2005 first-round pick returned to the Bay Area, reportedly signing a three-year deal worth $24 million, and $8 million annually. However feeble the attempt may have been, Smith needed to demonstrate that the market for his services was strong, and if the Niners missed on Peyton Manning after their dogged pursuit–which they did–then they also risked losing a quarterback who anchored their offense during a surprising turnaround in 2011.
Both sides knew how this would end if and when Manning made his exit from the free agency circus wearing a jersey that isn’t red and gold. From a management standpoint, Baalke took a significant risk, and he could have been left with some combination of Colin Kaepernick and Josh Johnson at quarterback. Feelings were hurt, and trust may need to be mended now, but Baalke likely rolled his dice because he was confident in the connection between Smith and Jim Harbaugh, a bond that can only exist in one NFL city.
Smith had more than just a turnaround last season. It was a resurgence that resurrected his career just one year after he was benched for Troy Smith, and fans were chanting for David Carr. His touchdown/interception ratio was +12, easily the best of his career due the support of an imposing defense, and the introduction of a coach who developed a scheme that took the offensive burden from Smith’s arm, and placed it squarely in the hands of his running backs.
Efficiency and effective game management are at the core of Smith’s existence in San Francisco, which led to his 90.7 passer rating last year, when his previous career-high was 82.1. He progressed as a passer as the year wore on too, throwing for 299 yards and three touchdowns in a playoff win over New Orleans. With Randy Moss and Mario Manningham now in place, there are added weapons for Smith to ignite the offense more often with his new-found confidence, instead of just be a babysitter.
Either way, San Francisco is more than just the best opportunity for a championship. For Smith, the 49ers offense is the system that restored respect around the league for his abilities in just one year after five years of failure, and competing for starts with the likes of Tim Rattay and Shaun Hill.
With Manning elsewhere, leaving could have been a foolish, career-damaging move.