49ers, Rams and pesky offseason rules

NEW ORLEANS -- The NFL's crackdown against five teams for organizing meetings with players before the lockout produced comical results Tuesday.

Jim Harbaugh, the San Francisco 49ers' new head coach, was innocently addressing what players might be doing during the lockout when he suddenly put on the brakes.

"Now guys are training, I'm sure," Harbaugh said from the NFL owners meeting.

Red lights apparently began flashing in Harbaugh's head.

"I don’t know that for sure," he clarified. "Let me go back and say I don't know that for sure. Probably on their own, wherever they are."

Of course.

The league levied fines against five teams March 18, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said. The NFL has not identified those teams pending an appeals process, but the 49ers will have been fortunate, in my view, to avoid scrutiny.

Harbaugh and quarterback Alex Smith had been meeting and even throwing together during on-field sessions after the Super Bowl and before the lockout -- a dead period. The 49ers weren't trying to get away with anything. They simply sought to get better by making the most of their time during what threatened to become an abbreviated offseason.

The league says rules prevented organized interaction during that time, based on its interpretation of Article XXXV within the recently expired collective bargaining agreement. NFL officials have distributed a memo explaining its interpretation, but the CBA itself seemed less clear on the matter.

The 49ers declined comment on whether they were fined, but if the Miami Dolphins were indeed punished for their dealings with Chad Henne, as commissioner Roger Goodell and general counsel Jeff Pash implied, the 49ers' well-advertised sessions with Smith raise obvious questions.

The St. Louis Rams appeared headed down a similar path when quarterback Sam Bradford said during Super Bowl week that he planned to meet extensively with new coordinator Josh McDaniels. Those plans apparently changed, however, and a subsequent report described a less formal get-together.

The Rams also declined comment.

Their players are presumably working out on their own as well, wherever they are.