Did Harbaugh mean what he said?

Is it possible that Jim Harbaugh meant precisely what he said when he praised Alex Smith in a radio interview last week?

In other words, when Harbaugh said he thought Alex Smith could be a winning quarterback in the NFL he meant this: He thought Alex Smith could be a winning quarterback in the NFL.

And when he said he was excited to work with Alex Smith he meant this: He was excited to work with Alex Smith.

And when he said Alex Smith was an accurate passer …

Due to the potential lockout on the horizon, there is a belief that Harbaugh is playing word games — praising Smith because he has to keep his options open. And that makes perfect sense. If a lockout ends in, say, August, the Niners’ quarterback corps would include David Carr and whatever rookie(s) they select in the draft.

In such a scenario, it might be nice to have Smith, an unrestricted free agent, willing to come back to San Francisco. So why not string him along and butter him up?

But is it possible Harbaugh isn’t playing games? Regardless of the labor situation, the free-agent quarterback class is weak with Seattle’s Matt Hasselbeck presumably headlining the list. And, lockout or no, a trade for a possible upgrade (Kevin Kolb, Kyle Orton, Carson Palmer) will require the 49ers to surrender at least one high-end draft pick.

Given the landscape, it seems conceivable Harbaugh, who helped get Tampa Bay’s Josh Johnson from non-scholarship USD to the NFL, is eager to embrace a perfect competitive opportunity: Getting a former No. 1 overall pick to a winning-NFL-quarterback level.

In evaluating the Niners’ roster, Harbaugh said he’s studying the “latest and healthiest tape.” And, in the case of Smith, the latest tape is quite good.

Alex Smith wasn’t Joe Montana during the latter stages of this past season. But he also wasn’t Joe Pisarcik.

While being, at times, loudly booed, Smith quietly put together the best extended performance of his career in his final six games (five starts) in 2010. During that stretch, he threw eight touchdowns and one interception in 152 attempts and had a 95.5 quarterback rating. In his final three starts, he posted the highest (130.9) and fourth-highest (107.8) passer ratings of his career.

Still, even if Harbaugh’s excitement regarding the soon-to-be 27-year-old Smith is genuine, it’s not his decision to make.

Why would Smith return to a franchise where he is reviled – I don’t think that’s too strong a word – by a certain segment of the fan base? In addition, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Smith would be guaranteed a starting job in San Francisco.

Harbaugh has said Smith sounded “open” to returning.

For his part, Smith hasn’t publically discussed his future since Jan. 3, the day after the regular-season finale. At that time, he suggested that whomever the Niners hired as a head coach would at least partially influence his decision.

“I’m not ruling that out yet in any way,” he said of a possible return. “It’s hard to decide, no head coach, a lot of uncertainty in this building as well. (I’ll) wait for all of that stuff to get ironed out and then make a decision.”

• In his last 152 attempts (final six games) during the 2010 season, Smith had a 95.5 quarterback rating. Here’s how the NFL’s top-16 rated quarterbacks fared in their final 152 regular-season attempts. I’ve included Smith on the list below.

(Yes, 152 is an arbitrary number and, no, it doesn’t reflect Smith’s game-sealing fumble against St. Louis and, wow, Tom Brady is kind of skilled and …)

1. Tom Brady, Patriots: 134.7 QB rating
Stats: 101 of 152 (66.4), 1,459 yards, 17 TDs, 0 INTs

2. Aaron Rodgers, Packers: 121.9
Stats: 108 of 152 (71.1), 1,452 yards, 12 TDs, 2 INTs

3. Josh Freeman, Buccaneers: 111.5
Stats: 100 of 152 (65.8), 1,213 yards, 11 TDs, 1 INT

4. Matt Schaub, Texans: 100.6
Stats: 102 of 152 (67.1), 1,194 yards, 7 TDs, 2 INTs

5. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers: 99.8
Stats: 94 of 152 (61.8), 1,283 yards, 5 TDs, 0 INTs

6. Philip Rivers, Chargers: 98.3
Stats: 100 of 152 (65.8), 1,249 yards, 7 TDs, 3 INTs

7. Peyton Manning, Colts: 96.8
Stats: 101 of 152 (66.4), 1,014 yards, 9 TDs, 3 INTs

8. Joe Flacco, Ravens: 96.6
Stats: 95 of 152 (62.5), 1,129 yards, 9 TDs, 3 INTs

9. Alex Smith, 49ers: 95.5
Stats: 86 of 152 (56.6), 1,141 yards, 8 TDs, 1 INT

10. Michael Vick, Eagles: 93.1
Stats: 95 of 152 (62.5), 1,200 yards, 9 TDs, 5 INTs

11. Jon Kitna, Cowboys: 91.5
Stats: 104 of 152 (68.4), 1,101 yards, 6 TDs, 4 INTs

12. Matt Ryan, Falcons: 83.9
Stats: 88 of 152 (57.9), 905 yards, 9 TDs, 4 INTs

13. Jay Cutler, Bears: 83.88
Stats: 89 of 152 (58.6), 1,084 yards, 9 TDs, 6 INTs

14. Matt Cassel, Chiefs: 83.2
Stats: 83 of 152 (54.6), 960 yards, 8 TDs, 3 INTs

15. Drew Brees, Saints: 74.9
Stats: 95 of 152 (62.5), 878 yards, 6 TDs, 6 INTs

16. David Garrard, Jaguars: 79.9
Stats: 91 of 152 (59.9), 1,040 yards, 6 TDs, 5 INTs

17. Kyle Orton, Broncos: 69.5
Stats: 79 of 152 (52.0), 880 yards, 5 TDs, 4 INTs

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