Aaron Rodgers is a Super Bowl champion.
In a classic Super Bowl matchup between the well-regarded “Team of the ’60s”, the Green Bay Packers, and the “Team of the ’70s”, the Pittsburgh Steelers, Rodgers led his team to a thrilling 31-25 victory, forever separating himself from the shadow of former Packers QB and future Hall-of-Famer Brett Favre. In a performance compared to that of his idols, 49ers QBs Joe Montana and Steve Young, Rodgers, a Northern California native, threw 24-of-39 for 304 yards and three touchdowns. Many experts believed, had it not been for seven drops by WRs James Jones and Jordy Nelson, it could have been a lot more. Ultimately, 2-time Super Bowl winner Ben Roethlisberger could not answer in the final minute, giving Rodgers and the Packers their fourth Super Bowl title.
Not long after the dust settled, more than a few sports writers and pundits put Rodgers’ journey in perspective – from his late first-round selection, to the “Will-he-or-won’t-he” drama regarding Favre. While most looked at Rodgers’ evolution into the Pro Bowl QB he became, some wondered out loud – what if he DIDN’T go to Green Bay in 2005?
Rewind back to six years ago: The San Francisco 49ers, coming off a league-worst 2-14 season and in dire need of a quarterback, missed out on the possibility of USC QB Matt Leinart – a treasured prospect at the time – as he opted to return for another season with the Trojans. This left them with two options: Rodgers, an impressive QB prospect out of Cal-Berkeley, and Alex Smith, a Junior QB out of Utah. Many experts believed the 49ers would select Rodgers, mainly based on the system he worked out of at Cal, and his local ties to Northern California (he grew up in Chico, CA). Ultimately, Smith went to the 49ers as their touted franchise QB, and Rodgers free-fell 23 spots … to the Green Bay Packers.
Fast-forward to 2011: Rodgers is a Super Bowl MVP, while Alex Smith is most likely to be released by the 49ers, after six tumultuous seasons with the club, never leading them to a record over .500. From a distance, many could look at the drafting of Smith over Rodgers as one of the biggest NFL draft blunders in history. As a matter of fact, as a 49ers fan, people might think I would be bitter for San Francisco to pass on Rodgers on that fateful April day in 2005.
On the contrary, I’m glad Rodgers wasn’t drafted by the 49ers – but that’s purely for his sake. While there are some that would insist that, had Rodgers been a 49er, things would have been drastically different, I don’t think so.
Let me explain:
First of all, the circumstances of both teams were drastically different. The Packers were coming off a 10-6 season, an NFC North title, and a disappointing loss to division rival Minnesota in the Wild Card playoffs. Favre was still his gun-slinging old self, throwing for 4,088 yards and 30 touchdowns. Green Bay had a solid team and a great offense, and, when they took Rodgers at No. 24, they weren’t necessarily looking for a franchise quarterback – perhaps a solid investment for the future, in the event that Favre should retire. Some NFL draft experts were scratching their heads, wondering why, in lieu of other draft needs, they would opt for a starting-QB-in-waiting.
Meanwhile, Smith came into a mess of a situation in San Francisco. Again, the 49ers were desperate for a quarterback to start immediately. The problem was, there was a reason the Niners had a 2-14 record. They ranked in the bottom-5 in 13 major statistical categories, and had an offensive line that gave up 52 sacks over the course of the 2004 season. Forget being thrown into the fire – Smith was thrown into a sacrificial volcano.
Now, I have always been a proponent of an NFL player, usually, only being as good as the talent around him. This is especially true for quarterbacks. Lets take a look at the talent around Rodgers during his first season as starting quarterback, in 2008:
RB: Ryan Grant (1101 total yards and 8 TDs in 2007 as a rookie); WR: Donald Driver (1,048 yards and 2 TDs in 2007) and Greg Jennings (920 yards and 12 TDs in 2007); TE: Donald Lee (575 yards and 6 TDs in 2007).
Most of these pieces were on the team that won the Super Bowl this year. Now, let us look at Smith’s first offensive unit:
RB: Kevan Barlow (1,034 total yards and 7 TDs in 2004); WR: Brandon Lloyd (565 yards and 6 TDs in 2004) and Cedrick Wilson (641 yards and 3 TDs in 2004); TE: Eric Johnson (825 yards and 2 TDs in 2004).
None of these players (besides Johnson) were all that effective to begin with. Suffice it to say, they are all either out of the league, or with different teams.
Then, there is the most damning evidence about the difference between Rodgers’ and Smith’s situations: coaching stability. Rodgers came into the Packers organization with stability at the top. Despite letting go of head coach Mike Sherman in 2005, the coaching staff was relatively stable once Rodgers was brought into the fold. Again, when he was given the reins in 2008, there was no doubt that Mike McCarthy was the head coach of the Packers, and offensive coordinator Joe Philbin was already conducting a top-10 offensive attack. In Rodgers’ time starting for Green Bay, that staff did not change.
Now, look back to San Francisco. Starting in 2005, Alex Smith saw a change at offensive coordinator almost every single year. Ironically, it started with McCarthy in 2005, who was hired by the Packers that offseason. The 49ers then brought in QB guru Norv Turner to conduct the offense. While Smith made great strides in 2006, to the dismay of Niner fans, Turner was hired away by the San Diego Chargers during the offseason. That left Smith with converted quarterbacks coach Jim Hostler to coach up the offense in 2007. Smith regressed that season, while the offense struggled, forcing the organization to make yet another change, to former Rams head coach Mike Martz.
Many believed Martz’s pass-first, “greatest show on turf” mentality was just what Smith needed. It wasn’t – he was fired soon after the 2009 season. Then came Jimmy Raye, who was meant to install a more run-heavy offense. When that didn’t work, midway through the 2010 season, Singletary fired him in favor of QB coach Mike Johnson. When you count that up, that’s six offensive coordinators – and six offensive schemes – in six years. What quarterback could go through that amount of turnover, and possibly be successful? Could Rodgers have gone through this situation and possibly have been better than Smith – let alone turned the 49ers into a perennial playoff team? I, for one, highly doubt it.
Ultimately, what pundits who play the “What if” game seem to always forget is that the history of what a player or a franchise goes through is never in a vacuum. Sure – if Rodgers today was plucked from the Packers, and placed on a team like the 49ers in 2005, with the promise he would turn out exactly the same as he is now, then, sure – San Francisco could be a perennial playoff contender. But the variables in Rodgers’ development are too many to assume that he would have turned out the same, given the 49ers’ situation in 2005. I, for one, believe it is a ridiculous assumption that if Rodgers had played in San Francisco, it would be the 49ers with a sixth Super Bowl, instead of Green Bay with its third.
So, congratulations, Aaron Rodgers – not only for winning a Super Bowl in Green Bay, but for avoiding the nightmare that was the San Francisco 49ers these past six years.