Future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning is announcing his retirement on Monday, and it brings to mind a briefly wild time in the history of the San Francisco 49ers.
In the spring of 2012, the San Francisco 49ers were coming off Jim Harbaugh's first season, capped with an appearance in the NFC title game. The 49ers rode a dominant defense, strong offensive line, and impressive run game to a strong 2011 campaign. Alex Smith made some huge plays for the team, but some of his biggest contributions much of the season were avoiding stupid mistakes. People mock the "game manager", but that kind of role was perfectly fine for the 49ers.
The 49ers drafted Colin Kaepernick in 2011, but his future as a starting quarterback was still a mystery. The team could win with Alex Smith, but Jim Harbaugh and company made it clear they were always on the lookout for ways to improve. And so, the 49ers began their pursuit of Peyton Manning. Jim Harbaugh would later refer to it simply as an "evaluation", but I don't think any of us are stupid enough to think this was not a full-fledged pursuit.
The 49ers eventually came up short in their pursuit, but it was a wild time. Alex Smith was a free agent who traveled to Miami for a visit with the Dolphins, but eventually re-signed with the 49ers. Had Manning signed with the 49ers, I don't imagine Smith would have stuck around. I suppose we could have seen a depth chart of Manning, Smith, and Kaepernick, but even that seems a little out there.
Had Manning signed with the 49ers, plenty of other dominos would have fallen. Smith likely goes somewhere else, and Kaepernick very well might have seen his 49ers contract expire without having started a single meaningful game. We can't say with certainty that the 49ers would have won a Super Bowl with Manning, but with that defense, offensive line and run game, I have to think the odds are decent they win at least one Super Bowl with Manning.
It's all woulda, coulda, shoulda, but it is certainly one of the most intriguing moderately realistic hypotheticals in franchise history. The short list of hypotheticals probably includes the following (feel free to add your own):
1. Smith vs. Rodgers in 2005
2. Lawrence Phillips doesn't blow that block (or the 49ers just don't sign Phillips) in 1999
3. Garrison Hearst doesn't hurt his ankle in 1999 divisional round playoff game
4. Eddie DeBartolo doesn't try and give a bribe to the corrupt governor of Louisiana in the 90s
5. Bill Walsh does not retire after Super Bowl 23