It doesn’t take Vince Lombardi to figure out 10 1/2 years after the fact that the San Francisco 49ers should have drafted Aaron Rodgers instead of Alex Smith at No. 1 overall in the 2005 NFL draft.
But let’s be fair and judge the decision based on when the 49ers made it in real time. Looking back, as Rodgers and Smith prepare to match up Monday night for the third time in their careers, a majority of NFL teams appear to have rated Smith higher going into that draft.
So the great wonder isn’t why Rodgers didn’t go first overall, but why he lasted to No. 24. The 49ers, after all, liked him enough that reports the day after the draft said they would have considered trading Smith to another team that drafted Rodgers in the top 10, like the Eli Manning-Philip Rivers deal the previous year.
It’s easy to say that all 20 teams that picked after the 49ers and before the Packers – the Vikings and Cowboys had two picks each – were clueless now that Rodgers is the best quarterback in the league.
But even the Packers had lingering questions three years after drafting him, just as he was taking over as their starter in 2008. How else do you explain them drafting Brian Brohm in the second round that year? If they knew what they had in Rodgers, there’s no way they’d have spent that high a pick on a backup quarterback. They wanted a fallback, just in case.
So looking back at the quarterback status for all the teams that passed on Rodgers, there are only two viable conclusions. One, those teams at minimum were unconvinced Rodgers would be an upgrade over what they had; and two, most quarterbacks fail in the NFL.
The 20 teams had quarterbacks in various stages of their careers, and especially considering the immeasurable importance of the position, you can judge teams only by what they do. Each thought Rodgers too suspect to risk a first-round pick. And when you look back at some the players they liked as much or better, it’s yet another stark lesson in the crapshoot that is projecting quarterbacks in the NFL.
Still, the teams that have to be kicking themselves most are Miami, Cleveland and Tampa Bay; they had the second, third and fifth picks of the draft.
Nick Saban was in position to start fresh with a new quarterback because he’d just taken over as coach and GM for Miami in ‘05. But he balked.
Gil Brandt, the longtime Dallas Cowboys front-office executive who now works for NFL.com, tweeted last year that in ’05 Saban liked Smith better after attending both workouts, conducted on back-to-back days. After the 49ers drafted Smith, Saban clearly had no interest in building his team around Rodgers.
He instead went with A.J. Feeley, acquired by the previous Dolphins regime the year before for a second-round draft pick, and Gus Frerotte, a 34-year-old free agent signed in the offseason. No need boring you with the details of how that didn’t work out.
Cleveland also had a new regime with general manager Phil Savage and coach Romeo Crennel. They signed 33-year-old Trent Dilfer, who had been Seattle’s backup the previous four seasons, to be their starter early in the offseason. And their decisions to pass on Rodgers and then draft Akron’s Charlie Frye at No. 67 overall suggests the two quarterbacks were similar prospects in their mind.
Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden had gone as far as calling Rodgers late in the week of the draft and strongly suggesting he would pick him at No. 5. But Gruden disdained putting his fate in a young quarterback’s hands and stuck with 30-year-old Brian Griese, who had a 34-32 record as a starter at that point. He also had 2003 third-round pick Chris Simms as backup.
So Gruden passed on Rodgers for running back Cadillac Williams. The Bucs started 4-1 in ’05, but Griese blew out his knee in Week 6 and never was a full-time starter thereafter.
That got Rodgers past No. 5, and before the draft, one NFL analyst predicted Rodgers could be in for a free fall. The NFL Network’s Mike Mayock saw all the reasons why teams might pass on him and concluded that if Rodgers made it out of the top 10, he would fall to the Packers.
He was right, and here’s a thumbnail look at the reasons why teams passed, with the player drafted in parenthesis:
11. Dallas (DE Demarcus Ware): In February 2005, Cowboys coach Bill Parcells signed 33-year-old Drew Bledsoe, his quarterback in New England when the Patriots went to the Super Bowl in the ’96 season, to a three-year contract that included a $2 million bonus. Bledsoe had just been cut by Buffalo. The Cowboys also liked their little-known backup, Tony Romo, an undrafted rookie from 2003 who would become their starter in ’06.
12. San Diego (OLB Shawne Merriman): The Chargers went 12-4 with Drew Brees as their quarterback in ’04 and had Philip Rivers, the No. 4 pick overall in the ’04 draft, as backup.
13. New Orleans (T Jammal Brown): Former Packers fourth-round pick Aaron Brooks was coming off back-to-back 8-8 seasons, and in ’04 Brooks ranked No. 9 in the league in passing yards, one spot ahead of Tom Brady. Offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy left the Saints in ’05 for San Francisco and recommended that the 49ers draft Smith ahead of Rodgers.
14. Carolina (LB Thomas Davis): Jake Delhomme, 30 at the time, was coming off a 7-9 season. But the year before he’d led the Panthers to an 11-5 record and the Super Bowl.
15. Kansas City (LB Derrick Johnson): Trent Green, 35, was in his fifth season as starter and coming off a year in which he finished No. 2 in the NFL in passing yards (4,591) and No. 7 in passer rating (95.2). He would lead the Chiefs to a 10-6 record in ‘05.
16. Houston (DT Travis Johnson): The Texans hadn’t give up on David Carr, the top pick of the ’02 draft, who’d improved from 4-12 to 5-11 to 7-9 by 2004. Carr regressed in ’05 and former coach Dom Capers’ team imploded to a 2-14 record.
17. Cincinnati (DE David Pollack): Carson Palmer, the first pick overall in ’03, would go 11-5 in ’05 but blow out his knee early in the Bengals’ playoff opener against Pittsburgh.
18. Minnesota (DE Erasmus James): Daunte Culpepper was coming off an ‘04 season in which he was second in the league in passer rating (110.9) and first in passing yards (4,717). He blew out his knee early in ’05, a week after defeating the Packers, and was never the same.
19. St. Louis (T Alex Barron): Marc Bulger had gone 20-9 as a starter in ’03 and ’04 combined and was 28 in ’05.
20. Dallas (DE Marcus Spears): See No. 11 above.
21. Jacksonville (WR Matt Jones): The Jaguars drafted Byron Leftwich at No. 7 overall in ’03, and things were looking up after he went 8-6 in ’04.
22. Baltimore (WR Mark Clayton): The Ravens still thought Kyle Boller, the No. 19 pick overall in 2003, might be a keeper after going 9-7 in his second season. He flamed out in ’05 and the Ravens traded for Steve McNair in ’06.
23. Oakland (CB Fabian Washington): Owner Al Davis thought 33-year-old Kerry Collins was his guy after a neck injury ended Rich Gannon’s career in ’04. Maybe the problem was Oakland, because Collins later went 12-3 as Tennessee’s starter in 2008.
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