Former Green Bay quarterback Matt Flynn signed with the Seahawks on Sunday. (Chris Graythen / Getty Images )
The NFL is a passing league.
So it was fitting that quarterbacks Matt Flynn and Alex Smith essentially passed in the friendly skies over the weekend, with Flynn flying from Miami to Seattle (where he signed a three-year deal with the Seahawks on Sunday), and Smith taking a red-eye flight from San Francisco to Miami to meet with the Dolphins.
It would have been almost unimaginable last week that Smith would be talking to any team but the 49ers, where he has spent his entire career. But the revelation Friday that San Francisco secretly met with Peyton Manning, watching him throw and giving him a physical, has Smith on uncertain ground less than two months after his best season as a pro.
Further rocking Smith's world is that he and Manning are represented by agent Tom Condon. Not surprisingly, Smith, a free agent who was working on a new deal with the 49ers, reportedly is considering giving Condon the boot.
Meanwhile, Matt Hasselbeck, coming off his excellent season in Tennessee, could likewise be looking for a team, when it once seemed so logical that he would be the ideal mentor for Jake Locker, drafted eighth overall by the Titans last year.
And Denver's Tim Tebow? His future is as murky as it has ever been, despite all those dramatic victories last season.
Some of this is simply the typical shifting sands of the off-season, the reshuffling of free agency. But with Manning, the most decorated free agent in NFL history, still up for grabs — and controlling the process the way he directs traffic at the line of scrimmage — the quarterback carousel seems ready to spin off its axis.
The decision on a team has to come at some point, but only Manning can say for sure whether it will happen this week. The three finalists are Denver, Tennessee and San Francisco, and each comes with enticements.
If his goal is to win another Super Bowl, his best chance comes in San Francisco, where the 49ers have a top-notch defense (best in the NFC last season); a 1,200-yard rusher in Frank Gore; an elite tight end in Vernon Davis; and a receiving corps featuring Michael Crabtree and the just-added Mario Manningham, who beat double coverage for the New York Giants in the Super Bowl to make that pivotal, 38-yard catch on the sideline.
What's more, the 49ers are the best team in a lukewarm division, a franchise that came within a hair's width of reaching the Super Bowl last season.
Jim Harbaugh was the NFL's coach of the year — an award accepted by Smith, incidentally — and some people have suggested that he and Manning are so alike in their intensity that they would clash. That's laughable. Both are uncompromising and hard wired to win, and there is no way Manning's personality would do anything but entice the 49ers.
At the scouting combine last month, Harbaugh was asked about Manning's "remarkable" career. He said: "I think that is the exact right word — remarkable. That your career would be something that people talk about and remark about. And in the history of the game, you're talking about a quarterback whose career will be talked about for 50, 100 years to come. He's been that kind of player in the National Football League. Very remarkable. Good word."
At that same news conference, though, Harbaugh was asked about Smith and said: "Alex is our guy. That's well-documented. He had a tremendous season."
So the 49ers have been very quiet in their pursuit of Manning. Not so for the Broncos and Titans.
It's clear that John Elway, the Broncos' executive vice president of football operations, isn't comfortable handing the keys of the organization to Tebow, a 46.5% passer last season. It's likely that Tebow will be traded if the Broncos land Manning. With or without Manning, Tebow is no lock to be Denver's starting quarterback next season.
The Broncos have a lot of salary-cap room, and the team that signs Manning will need that. According to the Denver Post, the Broncos are offering him a deal in the neighborhood of $90 million over five years, essentially picking up the contract Manning had with the Colts before he was sidelined for the 2011 season because of multiple neck procedures.
Denver has several talented young players, a defense that at times was exceptional last season, and one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history running the operation, someone who truly understands and appreciates Manning's excellence.
This might be the only way Elway can make an unassailable break from Tebowmania. After all, the fan rancor over the team parting ways with such a popular star as Tebow would be significantly dampened by the fact the club would be saying goodbye in exchange for a future first-ballot Hall of Fame member. As a result, Denver isn't likely to be outbid.
The allure of Tennessee is clear. Manning would be staying in a division he knows so well, and returning to a state where he was a college football megastar. His wife is from Tennessee, and the Titans have already signed his pal, All-Pro guard Steve Hutchinson. The team is flirting with the idea of signing Jeff Saturday, too, Manning's center throughout his career with the Colts.
What will drive Manning's decision? Is it the best opportunity to win another ring? Is it money? Is it comfort and familiarity? Does any of the suitors offer all three?
Manning is inscrutable. It's as if he's at the line of scrimmage, directing this way and that, barking out the snap count, crouching, standing, crouching again.
And the rest of us waiting for the real action to start.