Character assassination in diabolical world

49ers coach Jim Harbaugh on Tuesday attempted to set the record straight on a number of topics. AP Photo/Paul Sakuma

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- In Jim Harbaugh's world, Alex Smith is the smartest quarterback he's ever seen, Michael Crabtree has the surest hands he's ever seen and, just to be clear, the San Francisco 49ers evaluated Peyton Manning without pursuing him.

Got it?

Good, because this world is not an imaginary one, and if you've got doubts, well, you probably never thought the 49ers would take a 13-3 record into the 2011 NFL playoffs, where Smith would lead San Francisco past Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints.

Harbaugh, entering his second season as the 49ers' head coach, took time Tuesday to discuss how his team's offensive direction might change with Randy Moss and Mario Manningham at wide receiver. That was the tack I initiated, anyway.

We wound up discussing Harbaugh's justification for his recent unsolicited comments regarding Manning. That story has played out, pretty much, but the explanation Harbaugh provided shed light on his mentality.

"I felt a desire to set the record straight," Harbaugh said. "Now, the interesting thing is that you could speak the truth as you know it to be and believe it to be, and then somebody could call you a liar."

In this arrangement, Harbaugh was the one telling the truth about the 49ers' interest in Manning. Reporters and critics were the ones calling him a liar, in effect, by doubting his version of events. Harbaugh seemed baffled at the notion.

"That you can concisely, exactly say it how you see it and believe it, and then somebody can call you a liar, that would make me wonder about the shadiness of that person," Harbaugh said. "You know, the seediness, the diabolical world that somebody would live in that would think that another man would come right to his face and lie to him.

"You don't really understand another man until you've walked in their shoes, but I don't understand that world. I don't understand the world where somebody would lie themselves or be lied to to that extent where they could commit character assassination on somebody else that is telling the truth."

We arrived at this point in the conversation after discussing the 49ers' potentially evolving offensive identify. It's early in the offseason for identities to take shape, but Harbaugh said his team's collective smarts would allow for great flexibility. He then listed 14 offensive players by name, hailing each for his intelligence.

"They are so 'on the screws' and that starts with the quarterback, the best that we have ever seen of a guy that understands the game and is street smart and book smart and experienced," Harbaugh said of Smith before mentioning the braininess of Delanie Walker, Frank Gore, Joe Staley, Jonathan Goodwin, Crabtree, Moss, Manningham, Kyle Williams, Ted Ginn Jr., Bruce Miller, Mike Iupati, Anthony Davis and Alex Boone.

I asked Harbaugh how Smith's smarts had translated to in-game adjustments.

"It's the example, where it's not the low-hanging-fruit statistics: how many yards did a guy pass for, how many touchdowns did he throw?" Harbaugh said. "How did he take care of the football, how did he get us into the right play at the highest level we have ever seen from a quarterback -- things that don't show up on the stat sheet."

Right, but surely there would be a specific example from a specific game. Harbaugh wasn't going to provide one, presumably because he thought such information might represent a strategic breach.

"We're not really interested in impressing the media with examples," Harbaugh said with a smile.

Of course, Harbaugh had been quite interested in impressing the media with his version of the Manning story. Reminded of this, Harbaugh offered his commentary on character assassination and the diabolical world of seedy liars. He cut some slack for those of us suggesting his comments, whether regarding Smith (in relation to Manning) or Crabtree, might have been born of coaching psychology. But he still refuted those claims.

"I'd be hard-pressed to spell the word 'psychological' right now," Harbaugh said. "Just like Michael Crabtree. Michael Crabtree has got the best hands that we've ever seen. If my life depended on somebody catching something, or my children's life depended on somebody catching something, I would bring in Michael Crabtree to fill that role. It's as simple as that."

Right, but what about Larry Fitzgerald, a player the 49ers saw twice last season? Fitzgerald finished last season with 80 receptions for 1,411 yards and eight touchdowns, with only one drop. Crabtree finished with 73 receptions for 880 yards and four scores -- with six drops.

Crabtree might be more apt to approach Fitzgerald's level with his coach, Harbaugh, backing him so strongly. A reasonable person could view the praise as self-fulfilling.

"That's also a truism," Harbaugh said. "Michael is on our side. We're on his side. That's as fundamental as anything I know."

Our time was up -- no lie.