Signing Peyton Manning would get 49ers fans very excited, but it could be a disastrous move.
History tells us that quarterbacks who have built a Hall of Fame résumé with one team, as Manning certainly has, usually can’t replicate their success with new teams.
The one exception in 60 years is Norm Van Brocklin, who went from the Rams to the Eagles and led Philadelphia to an NFL championship.
But before Van Brocklin, Bobby Layne had led the Detroit Lions to back-to-back NFL titles in 1952-53, but had no titles when he was traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was embarrassing to watch Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath in their final seasons with the Chargers and Rams, respectively. In two seasons with the Chiefs, Joe Montana was nothing like the Super Joe of his four championship 49ers teams. Most recently, Brett Favre twice got the Green Bay Packers to the Super Bowl, winning once, but he couldn’t do that for the Jets or Vikings.
Manning has apparently been impressive in workouts for NFL teams, but he wasn’t getting hit. He’s had three neck surgeries in two years, and the last one kept him out for the 2011 season. The only question is how soon he’ll get knocked out this season.
What would happen to the 49ers if he were injured in a game early in the season? It’s likely they would have only Colin Kaerpernick — who hardly took a regular-season snap in 2011 — in reserve. They had been negotiating Alex Smith’s return, but when news broke that the team was looking seriously at Manning, Smith immediately sought to change agents — Tom Condon was negotiating both for him and Manning — and went to Miami to talk to the Dolphins on Sunday and some reports had Smith already negotiating a contract. Free agent Matt Flynn signed on Sunday with the Seattle Seahawaks, a team Smith was rumored to be visiting next, closing one landing spot for him.
The 49ers had tried very hard to hide their interest in Manning, with coach Jim Harbaugh flying to North Carolina to work him out, and apparently Condon didn’t warn Smith, either. Can we spell sleazy?
The other element that’s important is the team psyche.
Football is the ultimate team sport. If players don’t believe in their coach and quarterback, you see the kind of mess that existed in the Mike Nolan-Mike Singletary years. Even a strong coach like Bill Walsh lost his team in 1988, when he was beset by personal problems. Veteran players took charge at midseason and the 49ers went on to win the Super Bowl, but that was a team accustomed to success. The psyche of this team is much more fragile.
Harbaugh had built a strong team ethic, talking constantly of the team, not himself. He had similarly built up Smith, even having Smith accept his award for NFL Coach of the Year. Players had also supported Smith, despite the frequent criticism he got from media and fans.
Now, they’d see this as throwing Smith under the bus. They’d never trust Harbaugh again.
Much damage has already been done. Harbaugh needs to bow out of the Manning sweepstakes and have a make-up talk with Alex Smith, encouraging him to re-sign with the team.
If instead, he goes ahead with the Manning signing, say goodbye to team unity and the 49ers’ chances of replicating their 2011 success.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.