Opinion: Aaron Rodgers: It's his time
“With the first pick in the 2005 NFL Draft, the San Francisco 49ers select Alex Smith, quarterback, from the University of Utah.”
This was supposed to be Aaron Rodgers, the superstar quarterback from California. The kid who was barely recruited by Division-I programs. The same kid who went to a community college his freshman year. Every NFL draft analyst agreed that the first quarterback taken, obviously by the struggling 49ers, would be him or Alex Smith. But nobody thought the remaining of the two would drop so far.
The Green Bay Packers eventually selected him at the No. 24 spot. The pick was somewhat surprising, but then again, it made sense. He would sit one year behind the legendary Brett Favre, learn the tricks of the trade, be finely crafted into a Pro Bowl quarterback, and take over Lambeau Field once Favre decided to hang up his No. 4 jersey.
Smith went on to sign a six-year, $49.5 million deal with the 49ers as the NFL’s top draft pick. Rodgers, on the other hand, signed a five-year, $7.7 million contract. The drop-off was significant, not only in numerical order, but also financially.
During his rookie season, Rodgers did what everyone expected: held a clipboard as a Reebok NFL Equipment model on the sidelines. Rodgers played in just two games during the Packers 4-12 season. At the end of the year, Favre decided to return for “one more season.” Back to the bench for Rodgers. But, you know, just one more year. This old guy can’t take the punishment for much longer, right?
It turned out the person who would take the worse punishment in 2006 was Rodgers, in mop-up duty. The backup filled in for Favre in a blowout loss and broke his left leg, ending his second season before it even really started. To make matters worse, a gray-haired, teary-eyed Favre announced he was coming back for 2007.
For the third straight year, Rodgers was still a backup quarterback. But this time, it was the last preseason he would spend as the No. 2 quarterback.
Following the 2007 season, Favre played his first game of “maybe, umm, I don’t know if I can return, but…” The Packers organization, surprisingly, was not about to sit around and wait. They named Rodgers their starter for the 2008 campaign. Favre eventually went on to play for the New York Jets.
During the three years that Rodgers spent behind Favre, Smith did not live up to the hype in San Francisco. He played in 32 games over three years, passing for just 31 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. Nobody knew if the 49ers made the right choice with their 2005 first overall pick, given that Rodgers attempted just 35 passes over that same time span.
Little did they (and the rest of the world) know that it would take all of one season to see that the 49ers pulled an Al Davis for the ages. In his first season as a starter, Rodgers passed for 4,038 yards and 28 touchdowns. As for Favre and Smith? Favre had as many interceptions as touchdowns (22) for the Jets, and Smith missed the whole season due to injury. Rodgers ended that year with a lot more than jaw-dropping statistics, too. He signed a six-year, $65 million extension.
In 2009, Rodgers became the first quarterback in NFL history to pass for over 4,000 yards in each of his first two seasons as a starter. He made the Pro Bowl. His jersey sold. People started to know Rodgers’ name as most forgot Smith’s. With the trade to Green Bay rival Minnesota and ongoing drama, Favre became less and less of a hero in Packer nation. All signs pointed up for the kid from California.
This past week, Favre filed his retirement papers to the NFL. Smith is about to be cut from the organization that drafted him first overall.
This weekend, Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers will face the Chicago Bears for a chance to win their first NFC title since Favre did so in 1997. A trip to the Super Bowl is just one game away. I think it’s safe to say that it was worth the wait.