The 49ers emerged Friday as a covert contender to land quarterback Peyton Manning, who is considering the Denver Broncos and Tennessee Titans as other finalists in his comeback from neck surgery.
Manning surprisingly worked out Tuesday night for 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman in Durham, N.C., ESPN revealed and the Associated Press confirmed.
The 49ers reportedly were encouraged enough to dispatch doctors there Wednesday to conduct a physical exam of Manning, an 11-time Pro Bowler who missed last season because of a neck injury requiring multiple surgeries.
While Harbaugh and Roman were at the 49ers facility Friday — neither responded to interview requests — Manning worked out for Denver Broncos officials at Duke University. Broncos vice president John Elway posted on Twitter that Manning "threw the ball great and looked very comfortable out there."
How would Manning look throwing passes for last season's NFC runner-up, the 49ers?
Their incumbent quarterback is Alex Smith, a seven-year veteran who remains unsigned even though he and the 49ers have publicly expressed a desire to maintain their union. Smith became a free agent Tuesday.
The 49ers officially declined to comment on their interest in Manning and Tuesday's reported visit.
Former 49ers quarterback Steve Young expects the 49ers to land Manning, stating on ESPN: "They know they're the best answer for Peyton Manning."
Smith and Manning share the same agent, Tom Condon of CAA Football. Condon has not responded to repeated interview requests over the past month.
The Broncos were set to offer Manning a five-year, $90 million contract with $30 million guaranteed, the Denver Post reported. The Broncos have the most space under the salary cap at $43.9 million while the Titans are at $26.3 million and the 49ers at $18 million, according to CSN Bay Area.
The Arizona Cardinals and Miami Dolphins also met with Manning in the past week, and both have dropped out of contention.
"In the end, it didn't work out," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said in a statement, "but from our perspective it was very positive and we certainly don't have any regrets."
Asked Monday if he's been tempted to pursue Manning, 49ers CEO Jed York said: "It's not my choice. It's up to the coach and Trent (Baalke, the general manager) of what they want to do. I'll fully support them."
Baalke told KNBR 680-AM on March 6: "We haven't had Peyton in here, nor are we talking about those things internally."
Manning, who turns 36 on March 24, also is expected to work out this weekend for the Tennessee Titans, whom he visited earlier this week. If the Titans land Manning, that could lead to the release of veteran Matt Hasselbeck, who the 49ers courted a year ago.
Prior to sitting out last season, Manning started every game for the Colts since 1998, when he replaced Harbaugh.
"If you're gonna be replaced by someone, that's a pretty good one to be replaced by, isn't it?" Harbaugh said at last month's scouting combine in Indianapolis. "I kind of take some pride in that.
"... You're talking about a quarterback whose career will be talked about for 50, 100 years to come," Harbaugh added. "He's been that kind of player in the National Football League. Very remarkable."
Whoever is the 49ers' next quarterback, he will inherit a talent-laden roster that went 14-4 last season and fell 20-17 in overtime of the NFC Championship Game to the New York Giants. On Monday, Randy Moss joined a receiving corps that includes tight end Vernon Davis and 2009 first-round draft pick Michael Crabtree.
"You put Peyton Manning in that (49ers) offense and people are going to be scared to play them," former Colts coach Tony Dungy told the NFL Network when Manning to released March 7 by the Colts. "There are other teams that fit that same feel, but San Francisco comes to the top of my mind."
Dungy, now an NBC analyst, was the Colts' coach in 2006 when Manning broke through for his only Super Bowl triumph, 29-17 over the Chicago Bears. Manning returned to the Super Bowl in the 2009 season, only to fall 31-17 to the New Orleans Saints.
"There are some pretty good fits out there, but it's going to be a unique situation," Dungy added. "You have to feel like you're pretty close to the Super Bowl. You have to feel you have some pretty good offensive weaponry in place and that you need a quarterback. Not every team fits that mold."
Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice also has advocated the 49ers acquiring Manning.
"I think you go for it," Rice said earlier this month. "A guy of that talent, you've got everything in place. You've got a defense that smacks you in the mouth. You just need a little more out of the offense. That's not knocking what Alex did. (Manning) can take you to a whole different level.
"...If he's healthy, he's going to have a chip on his shoulder and he's going to be pissed."
Manning has thrown for 54,828 yards and 399 touchdowns with 198 interceptions. He has a 141-67 record in regular-season games, 9-10 in the postseason.
Smith said last Sunday he was amenable to a three-year contract offer from the 49ers, telling CBS 5: "They know I want to be back. I think they want me back. It's just a matter of working out the details. I'm excited about it. Not really thinking about anything else. Just wanting for it to get done."
The 49ers' commitment to Smith began in 2005 when they drafted him first overall out of Utah.
Last season, upon Harbaugh's arrival, Smith threw 17 touchdown passes and had only five interceptions in 445 regular-season attempts. His last interception came in the first half of a Thanksgiving loss at Baltimore. He had no interceptions in 68 passes in the two playoffs games and lost only two fumbles all season.
Smith helped key six victories via fourth-quarter comebacks, including four on the road, one at Candlestick on Nov. 13 over the Giants, and a 36-32 home thriller over the New Orleans Saints for the 49ers' first playoff win in nine years.
Overall, Smith threw for a career-high 3,144 yards and completed 61.4 percent of his passes. He got sacked a league-high 44 times, and the 49ers ranked 29th in passing yards per game.
Manning has been sacked 231 times in his 13 seasons, as compared to Smith's 172 sacks in the six seasons he's played. (Smith missed 2008 with a shoulder injury.)
Smith's best moment of his career came in the closing minutes of his playoff debut against the Saints, when he ran for a touchdown and completed a winning touchdown pass to Vernon Davis.
He completed 24-of-42 passes for 299 yards and three touchdowns in that win. In the 23-20 loss to the Giants in the NFC final, he was 12-of-26 for 196 yards with two touchdown passes.
Last summer Smith returned on a one-year deal that reportedly paid him $6.5 million, including $2.5 million through incentives.
"I think we've got a great quarterback in Alex," newly acquired fullback Rock Cartwright said on a conference call for the one-year deal he signed Friday. "Whoever is there, we're going to support and give him everything we've got. Right now Alex is the guy. That's who we're behind him 110 percent."
Smith's positive connection with Harbaugh have been quite evident, and Smith even served as Harbaugh's caddie in last month's opening round of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Smith also accepted the Associated Press' NFL Coach of the Year award on Harbaugh's behalf in Indianapolis on Super Bowl eve.