Sunday, the 49ers got a glimpse of what might have been. Four years removed from the 2005 NFL Draft, they went to Green Bay to face the player who could have been the future and face of their franchise.
As we know, the 49ers used the first pick in the 2005 draft to select Alex Smith of Utah over Aaron Rodgers, the equally highly rated prospect from Chico, Calif., who played across the San Francisco Bay at Cal. The choice of Smith over Rodgers was considered something of a mild upset.
Following that selection, the longest five hours of Rodgers’ life ensued in front of a live national television audience. As each pick passed, the ESPN cameras focused on Rodgers, who sat with agent Mike Sullivan in the green room.
Team after team passed on Rodgers, setting up the Packers at the 24th selection. Once Tampa Bay passed with the fifth pick – Jon Gruden had promised Aaron he would take him if he were there – it became clear that, as the Snickers commercial says, “this could take a while.”
The hours passed and the catering staff started stacking tables and chairs to give Rodgers the hint to leave. Unfortunately, there was nowhere to go (a couple of years later, Commissioner Roger Goodell mercifully provided Brady Quinn a place to sit out of view of the cameras).
I was the one chosen to take Aaron and Mike out of their misery. Sitting in the Packers’ war room that day, GM Ted Thompson looked over at me and asked me to get Mike Sullivan on the phone and keep him there while we made our decision.
“Andrew, please tell me you are taking him,” Sullivan whispered out of Aaron’s earshot. I felt for Mike, I really did, but I had to string out the agony a few more minutes. My instructions were to keep him on the line while we were on the clock to see if our phone rang with any offers we couldn’t refuse.
In what must have seemed like days for Mike and Aaron, I kept them holding before finally telling them we were picking Aaron (as I watched them on ESPN talking to me). Aaron was a Packer, set to join us as a backup to Brett Favre for an undetermined length of time.
Aaron was a hit from the beginning in Green Bay. At the first minicamp a few days after the draft, he lofted a 60-yard pass that hit Donald Driver in stride. My eyes caught those of Thompson, who gave me about the most expressive look he would ever give, indicating that he had found the future and his name was Aaron Rodgers.
The 49ers, of course, picked Smith and rewarded him with one of those contracts that are now thrown up as Exhibit A for a rookie wage scale, full of disproportionate guarantees and huge escalators -- one of the largest contracts in the NFL at the time. As for Aaron, we negotiated a contract that was simple on the front side but extremely difficult on the back side because we were trying to predict when Brett would be no longer playing for the Packers – after one year, two years, three years, four years, etc. (the answer was three, although not in the way we expected at the time).
Here’s a comparison of the contracts these first two quarterbacks in the draft received:
Guarantee Total Value
Smith $24M $49.5M
Rodgers $5.1M $7.7M
As we now know, both contracts were reworked, in opposite directions.
A year ago, Rodgers, after starting seven games for the Packers, was rewarded with a six-year contract worth $65 million, with $20 million guaranteed. Interestingly, the $20M added to his rookie-contract guarantee puts Rodgers just ahead of Smith in guaranteed money in his career, landing him right where he thought he should have been four years ago at the top of the draft.
And last March, Smith, who had made over $26M from the 49ers in four seasons, agreed to reduce his remaining compensation down to $6.5M total for this season and next, with incentives for another $2M per season. Although a far cry from the $24M he was scheduled to make, according to his original contract, this was certainly a fair deal for Smith, who faced the prospect of being released into the marketplace to try and find something better.
Now, for the first time as starters, these players, whose careers are inextricably linked through the events at the top of the draft, met at Lambeau Field in a Packers victory. The 49ers had an up-close look at what might have been.
Some other notes from the weekend:
Another interesting quarterback pairing occurred in Minnesota as Favre played against another of his former backups, Matt Hasselbeck. Matt knows Brett as well as anyone. The two are as naturally funny as any players in the league – engaging personalities that always keep things light and loose….
Tony Dungy continues to provide understated excellence on Sunday Night Football. Somehow, he’s able to illustrate and tactfully disapprove better than any of the more animated commentators filling the airwaves. Instead of openly criticizing Bears QB Jay Cutler, he said, “I didn’t think anyone could overthrow Devin Hester.” When Cutler later overthrew Johnny Knox for what would have been another touchdown, I could hear Dungy saying those words again….
There will be some lore about what Matthew Stafford did at the end of the Lions-Browns game, but it will be misguided. At a time when the NFL is trying to instill autonomy in the medical staffs and specialists to keep players from their natural instincts to want to play, Stafford defied four doctors and completed the game. Now his coach is joking about it and Stafford is a hero. I know this wasn’t a head injury – it was only a shoulder – but his blatant disregard for his team’s medical advice should not be celebrated….
On the third weekend of November, the top two teams in college football, Florida and Alabama, played Florida International and Chattanooga. Seriously?
The Packers lost two important players Sunday in Al Harris and Aaron Kampman. However important they were on the field, they will be missed more off the field. Those are two special people right there, people who would do anything to help teammates and friends. We wish them a speedy recovery from their injuries.
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