49ers face Rodgers and what might have been

On Sunday at Lambeau Field the San Francisco 49ers will get an up close and personal look at what might have been. Across the field will be Aaron Rodgers, the Packers quarterback now mentioned in MVP discussions. After sitting in the bullpen for three seasons, Rodgers was handed the keys to the Packers’ franchise after Brett Favre’s retirement in 2008 and allowed to hold those keys even when Favre wanted back in.

Rodgers grew up in the Bay area in Chico and went to Cal (as much as it pains me as a Stanford alum), just across the Bay Bridge from where the 49ers play and a bit further from where they practice.

Alex SmithICONSmith was the first pick in the 2005 Draft.

The Decision: Mr. Smith goes to San Francisco

In 2005, the 49ers had the first choice in the NFL Draft, and it was well known they were going to select one of two quarterbacks: Alex Smith of the University of Utah or Rodgers, the local product. For reasons that have been kept largely private, the 49ers made Smith their choice.

As the top pick in the Draft, Smith earned the Golden Ticket of a six-year $49.5 million contract with $24 million guaranteed. That contract has now been replaced with a downsized version, with Smith making $3 million in this last year of the contract.

Smith has not only had his contract replaced, but has been replaced as the starting quarterback by another Smith, Troy, a former fifth-round pick of the Ravens signed by the 49ers in September. Although Alex Smith has been medically cleared to play, he remains a backup who will watch Troy Smith start on Sunday against Rodgers and the Packers.

The Decision: Rodgers last man standing

As to Rodgers, we know the story of the excruciating wait until the Packers selection at the 24th pick, with ESPN cameras chronicling it as the caterers cleaned out the green room as all other players, agents and their entourages had left to don caps of other teams.

Jon Gruden, then coaching the Buccaneers, had told Aaron that if he were there at the fifth pick, he would take him. So much for that (he took Carnell Williams). Other teams indicated Aaron would be their pick and passed. It wasn’t until I called Aaron and agent Mike Sullivan while we on the clock in Green Bay – and then made Rodgers wait out ten minutes to see if we got an offer we couldn’t refuse – until he could exhale.

Luck of the Green and Gold

That the Packers now have a franchise quarterback for the foreseeable future is a product of tremendous fortune. All of the defensive players we had targeted in 2005 -- Carlos Rogers, DeMarcus Ware, Marcus Spears, David Pollack, Fabian Washington and others -- fell off the board and Aaron’s name was sitting there.

Although the coaches were upset about the selection, as Aaron would provide no immediate help to our team, as Favre never got hurt, Rodgers was too valuable a talent to pass up at 24.

Who knows how different the fate of the Packers and the legacy of Brett Favre would be if an attractive offer to trade down came in during those minutes where I had Aaron on hold?

Instant favorite

From the moment Rodgers arrived, he was well-liked in the front office for his wry sense of humor, ability to not take things too seriously and immense talent. I remember his first pass of the minicamp following the Draft where he escaped the rush and threw on the run hit Donald Driver in stride 45 yards downfield. My eyes met Ted Thompson’s, who beamed in as expressive a look as he ever gave. The future was set, whenever that future was going to be.

It is certainly unfair to label Alex Smith a “bust” in the conversation with players such as Ryan Leaf and JaMarcus Russell; he is not in that category. However, the fortunes of two franchises – and that of Brett Favre – may have been distinctly different had the 49ers picked the other quarterback that day.

These two products of franchise-changing decisions for two storied franchises, made within a few hours of each other on April 23, 2005, will be on display together Sunday at Lambeau.

Follow me on Twitter at adbrandt.

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