Different Paths Finally Cross
For the first time in their careers, Alex Smith’s San Francisco 49ers will face off against Aaron Rodgers’ Green Bay Packers. These two young men have been intertwined since their inception into the league. Although they have been in the league for five seasons, they have never played against each other because of different circumstances. On Sunday, the two will be subjected to multiple questions involving the 2005 draft, and how different their careers are.
Rodgers infamously sat and waited for five hours to be drafted after the 49ers selected Alex Smith first overall. The season prior to the draft, the 49ers finished the season with an NFL worst 2-14 record. The talent at quarterback wasn’t considered top shelf, but the 49ers were desperate. Top shelf is an understatement to say the least. While three quarterbacks were selected in the first round, Alex Smith, Aaron Rodgers, and Jason Campbell, eleven other quarterbacks were selected that weekend:
What a list of all-stars. How many of these guys have you heard of? A few of them, right? Well, how many of these guys have you heard of being spoken in a positive manner? Compare that to the year before when Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger all went in the first half of the first round. It was an unfortunate time to need a quarterback.
The 49ers ended up selecting Smith over Rodgers and until last season, no one could make a strong argument for the other way around. Rodgers’ first season as a starter was a statistical success, even though the Packers failed to make the playoffs. The comparisons between the two quarterbacks began. I feel these comparisons are unbalanced and unfair. It’s as simple as looking at each situation.
Smith was 20 years old when he was drafted. His fellow quarterbacks on the team were Tim Rattay, Ken Dorsey, and Cody Pickett (All of whom were drafted in the seventh round and are not in the league anymore.) Hurled into the starting role because of injuries, Smith took over the former 2-14 team, with wide receivers Johnnie Morton and Brandon Lloyd as his primary options. He played like a rookie not ready for action would play. Fans and media immediately labeled him a bust. The following season, Norv Turner was brought in to be the offensive coordinator after Mike McCarthy left to be the head coach for the Packers. Under Turner, Smith seemed to blossom and turned in a decent performance. (2890 passing yards, 16 TD, 16 INT) There was hope after all. However, Turner was chosen to be the head coach for the San Diego Chargers late in the off-season, giving the 49ers little time to find a replacement. Head coach Mike Nolan promoted quarterback coach Jim Hostler to offensive coordinator, a position he had never held before. Under Hostler, the offense struggled and Smith injured his throwing shoulder when the Seattle Seahawks’ 308 pound Rocky Bernard fell on him. The injury caused a public dispute between Smith and Nolan. Nolan called out his quarterback and said he had to learn to play through pain. Smith accused his coach of ignoring the seriousness of his injury. Last season, the 49ers tried the Mike Martz experiment. Martz, known throughout the league as an offensive mastermind, and sometimes referred to as the “mad scientist,” was brought in to ignite the offense. Smith’s surgically repaired shoulder never healed properly, and was shut down, he never took a snap. This season, a new offensive coordinator was brought in to implement new head coach Mike Singletary’s run first offense. Smith was given a shot to win the starting job, but couldn’t beat out journeyman Shaun Hill. Against the Houston Texans, Singletary pulled the struggling Hill and Smith took over, throwing three touchdowns, falling three points short of a comeback victory. Now as the starter, Smith has yet to find that rhythm and is coming off his first win since 2007. After five different offensive coordinators in five years, missing essentially two seasons, and a rotating door that featured 10 different starting receivers, Smith heads to Green Bay in hopes of defeating his draft day counterpart.
Aaron Rodgers’ path is basically the opposite of Smith’s. While Smith was struggling to learn a new offensive system every year, Rodgers had the luxury of being in the same system, sitting behind a future Hall of Famer. From my understanding, Brett Favre wasn’t necessarily a mentor to Rodgers, but the ability to watch Favre first hand probably helped in his development. The consistency in the offensive system didn’t hurt either. Admittedly, taking over for a legend is no easy task, but Rodgers took the reigns and was fully embraced by the organization and the fans, even when Favre made a mess of things and unretired. Confidence and preparation was required to succeed, and Rodgers had both. Aside from having the same system, and watching Favre for three years, Rodgers inherited a 13-3 team, with Ryan Grant solidifying the running game, and a wide receiver tandem that featured the reliable veteran Donald Driver (82 receptions, 1048 yards) and up and coming touchdown machine, Greg Jennings (12 touchdowns in 13 games.)
The evidence from these situations leads to only one conclusion; Rodgers was in the best position to succeed. Comparing these two quarterbacks is unfair and rather moot. Look at their different career paths, Rodgers was set up to win football games. It would make more sense to compare Jason Campbell to Smith. Campbell has had to fight through the same obstacles as Smith: no consistency in the offense, lack of talent in the wide receiver area, etc. These two quarterbacks shared similar paths, and produced similar results.
The reality is Smith and Rodgers will always be connected. I expect to hear the comparisons of the two well after the game is over. There will be much talk about how Smith needs to win in order to prove to the organization that he was the correct choice. This kind of talk makes for good TV and debate, but the information is not really relevant in any way. If Smith does lead the 49ers to victory, but loses every other game, he’s not going to say, “We missed the playoffs, but we beat Aaron Rodgers.” To prove he was the right choice to the 49ers, the media, and the fans, Smith needs to go out every Sunday and win. Rodgers is just another opponent standing between his team and the post-season.
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