Thursday, September 11, 2008

Rodgers vs. Smith: Proof Positive

Sometimes, things happen for a reason.

The recent trip to the IR for San Francisco QB Alex Smith is likely to spell an end to a rather expensive mistake by the 49ers, who drafted him in 2005 with the first overall pick. Smith was unseated this season, his fourth, by a guy who was once dismissed as the Green Packers' emergency quarterback, J.T. O'Sullivan. And when this season is over, Smith will likely be released to avoid another season of millions of dollars for nothin'.

And the 49ers have no one to blame but themselves.

It doesn't seem like very long ago that 49er fans were thumping their chests about their great draft choice and his potential, while the Packers got stuck with the ugly stepsister, Aaron Rodgers, who free-falled in the draft before a perceived "mercy pick" at 24, bringing him to Green Bay. Oh, how that has changed.

The 49ers drafted Smith and, like many football teams in the past, placed him in the starting lineup and proceeded the long and difficult task of building a team around him. Pay no mind to the lessons that should have been learned from Tim Couch, David Carr, or Akili Smith. If a team is drafting that high, they have a terrible team that probably needs upgrades and nearly every position.

And yet, with the incredible amount of money being thrown at a top overall pick, the pressure is there right away to put the guy in, and let him "grow" in the position. Yet, we see quarterback after quarterback fail under these conditions, forced to play without a team around him.

This was the trap the 49ers fell into. Smith and Rodgers were about neck and neck in terms of their ability and potential, Smith probably getting the nod due to his lengthier experience at Utah and is uncanny measured intelligence. Rodgers, who spent only two years at Cal and played some of his years at junior college, was considered more of a raw talent that had the shadow of being a Tedford product, which didn't project well in the pro game.

Fact is, both quarterbacks could have been put into the same situation and probably had the same successes and failures as the other. But, the fact of the matter is, they weren't put into the same situation. And, to some degree, though it isn't the most popular of opinions in Packerland, you have to give a thanks to Brett Favre.

We all know that Ted Thompson is pretty loyal to his draft picks. He tends to find a way to keep nearly every guy he selects on the roster that year, and has often allowed veterans to leave the team to be replaced with a guy he drafted. One would have to think that Thompson has a soft spot for Rodgers, the first player he drafted and a guy who he has seen toil behind the stubborn will of Favre's desire to continue playing into his AARP years.

I remember getting into rather heated battles with other Packer fans who tended have a, well, jaded view of how valuable a player Favre was to the Packers in the Sherman era. Often, in the 2005 and 2006 seasons, there were cries for Favre to sit (or forcibly retire) so that Rodgers could get the starting job. "After all," they said, "we have to know what we have in Rodgers, so we know how to draft the next year!"

Sometimes, I was branded a Rodgers Critic because I, admittedly, was a pretty fierce Favre Fan. But, in retrospect, I think I had the right idea. Favre was the best player for the job in 2005, taking the firestorm of criticism as he threw 29 interceptions. But, he was playing behind guys name Whittaker and Klemm, and throwing to guys named Taco and Chatman, and handing off to a guy named Gado...none of whom were with the team the following year.

By his own admission, Rodgers entered the 2005 season cocky, a chip on his shoulder the size of Grady Jackson, looking to immediately compensate for his draft day plummet. There was no way he would have had any measure of success that season, and likely the following season in 2006. In both seasons, it was clear the game still hadn't slowed down for him, his decision making was forced, and his pressure awareness was dangerously blind.

Sitting on the bench, the whispers started: is this a first round bust? Is this kid never going to be good enough to play? Some began to doubt Rodgers, some because he simply sat on the bench behind Favre, some because they saw habits on the field that he didn't appear to be outgrowing.

In 2007, we began to see the confident Rodgers. We saw him start to go through his progressions. We saw him more poised in the pocket and get rid of the ball when pressure struck. And when he scrambled, we saw a guy play it safe instead of getting blindsided downfield.

And, we saw what we knew he had all accurate and pretty spiral that could be thrown with a little pop. We just didn't see it too often those first few years, because he never had time to throw it.

And now, after a great coming-out party on Monday Night against the Vikings, Rodgers appears to have gotten the dream he has waited so long for. Alex Smith, on the other hand, appears to be spending the rest of the season in street clothes, watching a team from the sideline that he won't be with next year. For one, the future is bright. For the other, the future is uncertain.

Brett Favre had his detractors the past few years while Rodgers rode the pine. There were many who wanted Favre and his gunslinging style out of here, claiming duds anywhere from Craig Nall to Aaron Brooks would be more suitable starting quarterbacks. And Rodgers was a rallying point.

In retrospect, Ted Thompson avoided having another Tim Couch or Alex Smith on his hands because Favre was there. Face it. Had Favre retired before the 2005 or 2006 seasons, can you honestly see Thompson and McCarthy not immediately plugging in Rodgers? Can you imagine the furor if Todd Bouman started the 2006 season instead of the previous year's number one draft choice?

And yet, had Rodgers started in his rookie year or even his sophomore season, I have little doubt we'd be talking about both Smith and Rodgers as the twin QB busts of the 2005 draft.

Not only is Rodgers finally ready for this team, this team is finally ready for Rodgers. A developing offensive line, one year more experienced, lines up in front of him, with two veteran bookends at tackle. Ryan Grant takes his handoffs, instead of Samkon Gado or Tony Fisher. And, he has the receiving corps that Brett Favre never had over the course of his career, save last year.

I predicted years ago that Thompson was happy to have Favre to take the licks as he rebuilt the offense. It kept Rodgers safe on the sideline and allowed Favre to garner some PR as he pursued some records, as well as being the lightning rod for hype and criticism. When the team was ready, it was going to be time for Rodgers.

And, that time has come, never-you-mind a bump or two along the road. The offensive line probably isn't quite where Thompson, McCarthy, or Rodgers would ideally like to see it, but face it: Rodgers is surrounded by ten times the talent he would have had around him in 2005.

And ten times the talent Alex Smith ever had to work with.

Playing just to survive as a young quarterback develops habits that never seem to break, and often result in the premature end of a promising career. You don't need to look farther than Tim Couch, Akili Smith, or David Carr to see that. And now, it looks like we can add Alex Smith to that list.

Thankfully, Aaron Rodgers won't be joining him. And, Favre's longevity has probably given the Packers one final dividend: giving the Packers reason not to rush their investment along, not matter how eager they may have been to do it.


Anonymous said...

Rodgers played at Cal

Indeed Favre was absolutely the right guy to keep the team winning during the transition and turnover of the roster.

Not only for Rodgers, but in 2006/7 he helped teach the young guys HOW to win in this League.

Brett's contribution to the success of the 2006/7 teams will be seen in the success of the '08 squad as well.

C.D. Angeli said...

Nice catch...fixed it. Even had the wikipedia page open as I typed it as missed it.

Thanks for the comments...I don't know if I'd trade that 2007 season from Favre for anything. What a great way to go out and usher in a new era.

rickusn said...

Excellent analysis.

Im not sure I agree on the talent disparity level.

And you left out the importance of coaching.

But overall I concur with your assessment.

C.D. Angeli said...

Thanks, rick...

And, I am in the middle of a Mike McCarthy article that isn't coming together as tightly as I want right now that addresses a lot of that, so keep an eye for it!