Incumbent starter Alex Smith was a free agent and Manning was the most acclaimed free-agent quarterback to hit the market. The 49ers owed no apologies to anyone, and there was likewise no need for coach Jim Harbaugh to clarify the team's interest level with unsolicited comments Wednesday.
Harbaugh reportedly did that anyway. Initial reports suggest Harbaugh discounted the 49ers' pursuit of Manning, using the word "erroneous" to describe reports and saying the team wanted Smith back all along.
Why now? Recent comments from Carolina Panthers linebacker Jon Beason could have provided a trigger. Beason, in defending Panthers quarterback Cam Newton from comments Smith made recently, used the 49ers' interest in Manning against Smith. Beason showed up Smith, tweeting for the world to hear that Smith would have been out of a job if the 49ers had landed Manning.
That characterization would run counter to what the 49ers have told Smith all along, that he was in their plans no matter what happened with Manning. Some snickered when Smith suggested Manning would have had to compete with him for the job, but you can bet that's what the 49ers told Smith. They wanted to look into Manning without losing Smith.
In Harbaugh's view, the 49ers merely evaluated Manning when Harbaugh attended the quarterback's workout this offseason. They never pursued him. Harbaugh also stressed Wednesday that there was "no scenario" that would have resulted in Smith leaving the 49ers for another team.
Sounds like semantics to me, but words obviously matter to Harbaugh. He's not going to let Beason or anyone else define the team's interest in Manning. Hearing the words "pursue" and "flirting" obviously bothered Harbaugh enough for him to say something about it, especially with Smith under some fire.
Harbaugh stood by Smith all through last season. He's not going to back away now.