San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith just became part of NFL history, having delivered the touchdown pass that beat New Orleans in Saints coach Sean Payton’s last game of 2012, on conceivably the final play of Gregg Williams’ distinguished career as a defensive coordinator.
Of course, the fallout of the Saints’ punishment for their “bounty” program is that the news of Smith’s signing another contract with the 49ers slips way down the list of NFL developments that includes the bounty penalties, Peyton Manning’s joining the Denver Broncos and Tim Tebow’s being traded to the New York Jets.
Wow. What a week in the NFL — and this is March, for goodness sake. Here’s my ranking of the top five stories: No. 1 — Payton. No. 2 — Peyton. No. 3 — The QB who became expendable after Peyton’s arrival. No. 4 — The QB who beat Payton and stayed with the 49ers after they failed to land Peyton. No. 5 — Mario Manningham’s move.
Got all that?
The gutsy onside kick to open the second half of the Super Bowl against Manning and the Indianapolis Colts two years ago seemingly would stand forever as the defining moment of Payton’s coaching career. Oh, no. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell changed all of that Wednesday, delivering what’s undoubtedly the harshest punishment a coach ever received in any pro sport, a full season’s suspension.
Nobody could have seen this coming, which is not to say it is unfair. Even in an NFL culture that glorifies big hits and basically markets violence to a vast audience, a payment system for injuring opponents is horrifying. Payton brought part of this punishment on himself, initially claiming to be “entirely unaware” of the bounty program that went unchecked for three seasons.
In a way, his sentence will be less disruptive to the Saints than if Payton were allowed to come back in the middle of the season. The remaining issues are whether the team actually will stick with Payton in 2013 and how much the loss of draft picks will affect the franchise.
Tebow’s value after winning a playoff game in Denver is, in essence, a fourth-round draft pick. The Saints are forfeiting two second-round picks, which are far more valuable in the NFL than the NBA, for example.
Yet while the Saints are being hit hard, the innocent victims are the St. Louis Rams. They hired Williams as their defensive coordinator under new coach Jeff Fisher, and now Williams is out of the league indefinitely. Goodell will review Williams’ case after this season, but it certainly is difficult to picture him ever becoming a NFL defensive coordinator again.
Meanwhile, the 49ers’ ability to acquire Manningham — and not Manning — made this a great offseason for Smith, the former University of Utah quarterback. Right now, San Francisco is better positioned than Denver to reach the Super Bowl. Smith should recognize that, resisting any thoughts of pouting about the way his organization pursued Manning.
Those same 49ers executives got Manningham, the former New York Giants receiver, besides taking a low-risk gamble on Randy Moss, in an effort to give Smith some capable pass-catchers. Remember, the 49ers’ wide receivers caught exactly one of Smith’s passes, for 3 yards, against the Giants in the NFC championship game after they defeated the Saints in the divisional playoff round.
All these quarterbacks will benefit from this week’s transactions, I’m convinced. Manning, protected by former Ute offensive guard Zane Beadles, will thrive in Denver. Smith will have more help in San Francisco.
Tebow will settle into a specialty role that suits him in New York.
And all three franchises should be very glad they’re not the Saints, even though New Orleans won a Super Bowl a lot more recently than any of them did.