Optimism about ending the NFL lockout should, in theory, be multiplied several times over for the San Francisco 49ers. Reopening for business by mid-July, a rational forecast in light of recent negotiations, would allow them to hold an adequate first training camp under new coach Jim Harbaugh, rather than a fire drill in August.
But the relief could quickly give way to acute buyer's remorse if certain quarterbacks become available at reasonable prices. The 49ers committed early to bringing back incumbent Alex Smith for a seventh season, a decision that would have been incomprehensible in a normal offseason. Back in January, when Harbaugh publicly proclaimed himself a Smith supporter, the chances of signing or trading for a quarterback with better credentials seemed remote, especially if the lockout stretched into August and turned the transaction period into a chaotic bazaar.
But now it appears that the time to do deals might be long enough to avoid madness, and the list of likely transfers has grown.
Carson Palmer has more definitively joined the pool of available quarterbacks, and Philadelphia seems more inclined to trade Kevin Kolb. Eagles coach Andy Reid, however, will be extremely unhappy if Michael Vick runs himself into a serious injury while Kolb, something of a Reid pet, thrives in another town. The asking price for Kolb could be prohibitive, and if Palmer becomes available, he would be a more proven commodity.
At the start of the lockout, Palmer had threatened to retire if the Bengals didn't trade him, and he put his Ohio house up for sale. Since then, Palmer's threat has bloomed into more of a promise, and while draft pick Andy Dalton turned up for player-organized workouts, the eight-year veteran stayed home.
The Bengals' Mike Brown is as stubborn as team owners come, and he has said the issues with Palmer can be resolved. So it's not certain that he will be available, but if he is, the 49ers belong on his list of suitors. When Harbaugh trusted Smith with the offensive playbook on the one day that the lockout was lifted, the 49ers effectively declared themselves out of the running for a quarterback with Palmer's pedigree.
The only way to get back into the running would be to betray Smith and damage Harbaugh's credibility with the rest of the team. By the numbers, Palmer has not looked much better than Smith over the past couple of years. Both have posted quarterback ratings in the low 80s.
But Palmer has been an elite quarterback in the past, with two 4,000-yard passing seasons, and he has ample reason to believe that he would thrive away from the troubled Bengals. He has also led a team to the playoffs, and he is only 31. If NFC-West rival Arizona somehow gets its hands on him, the 49ers should be extremely worried, especially since they had the same opportunities to land him.
Seattle might pursue Palmer as well, although the Seahawks seem more inclined to re-sign Matt Hasselbeck. If they don't retain him, Hasselbeck would be an ideal gap/mentor quarterback for a team with an heir apparent. He looked disturbingly creaky most of last season, his reaction time clearly damaged by years of pounding. But when he could get into the flow of a game, Hasselbeck still had the skills that have eluded Smith since he joined the 49ers in 2005.
Marc Bulger, a backup for the Ravens last year, has been targeted by Arizona, but he actually makes a better match for the 49ers now that they have drafted Colin Kaepernick. The Cardinals have no quarterback of the future, and at 34, Bulger should be strictly a transitional figure.
Donovan McNabb will be available, but so much drama follows him around that the 49ers probably won't regret missing that opportunity. Although technically under contract to Washington, McNabb worked out with his former Eagles teammates recently, and he has vowed to make people forget his horrendous 2010 with the Redskins.
McNabb certainly wasn't the only problem in Mike Shanahan's first season there. Nepotism on a coaching staff sets up unnecessary conflict, so having Shanahan's son, Kyle, as his offensive coordinator absolves McNabb to some extent. It wouldn't be surprising to see McNabb stage a comeback in 2011. It would be shocking to see him do it as a 49er.
Harbaugh might not care about the opportunities he bypassed when he decided to play Tony Robbins to Smith. He may truly believe in Smith, the lockout limitations notwithstanding. At the moment, Harbaugh appears to have coped assertively with a very complicated situation. But if the labor fight ends soon, allowing the 49ers to have a full camp and a few quarterbacks to move into productive roles with new teams, his decisiveness could look more like impatience. Settling on Smith will be simply that -- settling. The lockout won't provide any excuses.