Alex Smith would buy time for 49ers

Jim Harbaugh wants a smart, athletic, hard-working quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers.

SmithSmithThat's why he drafted Nevada's Colin Kaepernick.

It's also why he's courted Alex Smith this offseason. The courting bordered on stalking Saturday when Harbaugh all but guaranteed Smith's return to the team for another season.

Smith hasn't shown he possesses all the attributes Harbaugh covets. Accuracy, leadership, the ability to pull out victories from behind -- those things matter, too. But with the 49ers looking to bring along Kaepernick at a reasonable pace, re-signing Smith makes sense for all parties.

Smith would get to be wanted -- if not by fans, then at least by Harbaugh. Smith would get a chance to prove he can be a successful starter. Where else would he have a better shot at starting in 2011? Kaepernick would get to learn behind a quarterback with strong work habits and an agreeable disposition. The 49ers would buy time for Kaepernick without introducing an unknown quarterback into the equation. Harbaugh would get a season to prove he can get more from Smith than previous coaches could get from the quarterback. Smith would come at a reasonable price; the team wouldn't have to trade for him.

The Harbaugh-Smith courtship began about the time 49ers president Jed York said in January that the team had not ruled out bringing back the 2005 first-round draft choice.

There was no sense in ruling out a potential option. There was reason to think Harbaugh would like Smith. Then came word that Harbaugh thought Smith could become a winning quarterback. The comments made some sense. Before long, Harbaugh and Smith were hanging out together, even on the practice field.

Harbaugh expressed more affection for Smith during a fan forum. I could see why returning might appeal to Smith, and the courting continued. General manager Trent Baalke made sure everyone knew he wouldn't stand in the way. NFL rules against player-coach interaction interrupted relations for a while, but Baalke again outlined reasons why keeping Smith could make sense.

Harbaugh even gave Smith a playbook before a court ruling reinstated the lockout. It's now officially an upset if Smith doesn't come back for the 2011 season.