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The Harbaughs Should Be Fighting Over Who Gets to Sign Peyton Manning

The Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers came within a few key plays Sunday of advancing to the Super Bowl. Instead of talking about the Brady-Eli rematch, we could be talking where Joe Flacco and Alex Smith rank on the list of the worst QBs to start a Super Bowl. Nobody’s blaming Flacco or Smith – one played well, the other less so – and instead, the focus has been on Billy Cundiff’s missed field goal, and Kyle Williams’ fumble in overtime.

Meanwhile, the Peyton Manning train will continue toward chugging toward that March 8th deadline, and based on recent events in Indianapolis, with Manning and owner Jim Irsay exchanging quotes in the media, it looks like Manning will be the free agent of the offseason.

Miami has Peyton Manning, not surprisingly, atop its wish list. Arizona could unite Manning with Larry Fitzgerald, and conveniently has its own decision on a bonus coming up on $63 million man Kevin Kolb (nine days after the Manning deadline). Let’s face it, at least half the teams in the league should at least be considering Manning, and he would provide a clear upgrade at the position, even coming off multiple neck procedures. We’ll hear about Seattle and Kansas City, or Jacksonville and Minnesota, or Washington and Cleveland in the coming weeks.

But I turn back to what Manning should do, and which teams should really make the push and take the big boy risk of bringing in one of the best all-time quarterbacks at this point. I come up with Baltimore and San Francisco.

For Manning, he needs to follow the path of two other Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Y.A. Tittle and Joe Montana, men who had injuries in their mid-30’s, younger replacements who turned out to be pretty good quarterbacks themselves, and saw themselves forced to end their careers elsewhere. Did they end up with teams that had the flashiest offensive weapons, or that had the worst quarterback situation before their arrival? No. They both went to teams with pretty good defensive personnel, and elevated those teams. A retirement home in Arizona while playing pitch and catch with Larry Fitzgerald might be nice, but Manning has elevated receivers throughout his career. With bidders everywhere, he should focus on the other side of the ball, and where his offensive impact will join that to create a Super Bowl favorite.

What of the Baltimore and San Francisco ends, though? Joe Flacco and Alex Smith are starters in this league, and if either were replaced, they would then elevate to the top free agent/trade option available. Alex Smith signed a 1 -year deal last offseason, so San Francisco would have to re-sign him, but for more money (early reports are he’s targeting a 2-3 year deal worth about $9 million annually). Joe Flacco is entering the final year of his deal, and wants a new one. From a contractual/team building standpoint, neither situation is prohibitive to getting involved with Peyton discussions.

But they led teams to a championship game and deserve more, right? I say that you have a chance to upgrade the position, even if it wasn’t the weak point on the team, and you do it here. From a “marginal value” standpoint, adding Manning is more valuable to San Francisco and Baltimore than it would be to someone like Cleveland.

Joe Flacco and Alex Smith will be starters in this league over the next few years. They can both make plays, but at times lack consistency. They can hit throws down the field, but also have a tendency to hold the ball at times. Last year (fittingly in a Saints-49ers preview) I asked when it was time to give up on Alex Smith, concluding it was too early. I think that approach is correct, but I’m also not projecting him to be a star as he moves into his late 20’s, when the main thing he did playing with a great defense was avoid turnovers. I’m not failing to make a move because I’m worried Alex Smith will be a star four years from now, and I’m expecting turnover regression if Smith is the quarterback in 2012.

As for Flacco, he reminds me of guys like Ken O’Brien and Jim McMahon. His sack rate is below average for his career, his other numbers are decent, above average even, but not spectacular, and he has been bolstered by a top defense. Guys most similar to Flacco haven’t played to their mid-30’s, and I’m not passing on an opportunity to make a big splash with Manning because of what Flacco might be at age 31, when Manning is done.

San Francisco and Baltimore were 1st and 2nd respectively in rush defense in 2011, and they were top 10 teams in pass defense. They ranked 20th and 19th in net passing yards per play on offense. That’s not horrible, but it is a little below average. The Harbaughs could look at that, and decide to stay the course, and hope to win with great defense, limiting mistakes on offense and winning with just enough plays from the QB. That would be the safe play.

Or, they could go big, take a risk, and realize that an upgrade in those passing games makes them the favorites in their respective conferences. Baltimore has an elite defense, though Ray Lewis is on so much borrowed time that he took out a second loan, and Ed Reed will continue to have trouble staying healthy and may not have many more opportunities left. San Francisco has a dominant, hard hitting defense, with Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman inside, Justin Smith as a beast pushing the middle, and Aldon Smith as a speedy pass rusher. They aren’t going away.

Jim Harbaugh has to decide if he wants a quarterback who put together a Jim Harbaugh-like quarterback season, or if he wants to go big for Manning. Brother John must decide if the play is to roll the dice on Manning and take a run with that defense, while flipping Flacco for value, or stay the course. If I’m the Harbaughs, I’m wrestling and fighting once again. The Super Bowl in 2012 or 2013 could be on the line.

And if I’m Peyton Manning, and Indianapolis is not my home, I figure I will get plenty of opportunities for money anywhere. I’m going to follow the defenses, and a Harbaugh, to where I want to go.

[photo via Getty]

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