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Contrasting Careers Thus Far For QBs Smith, Rodgers


QBs Alex Smith of the 49ers and Aaron Rodgers of the Packers meet on the field following the two teams' preseason meeting on Aug. 16, 2008.

The divergent paths taken by quarterbacks Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers since draft day in April 2005 are unavoidably in the spotlight this week as the San Francisco 49ers come to Green Bay to take on the Packers.

But to draw any grand conclusions from the analysis is a dicey proposition at best. Probably better just to look at it as the principals involved do, that everything happens for a reason.

To review, Smith and Rodgers were the top two quarterback prospects in the 2005 draft, and both were considered strong candidates to be taken No. 1 overall by the 49ers. Ultimately San Francisco chose Smith to revive the franchise, leaving Rodgers to unexpectedly fall all the way to No. 24, where the Packers grabbed him as the heir apparent to Brett Favre.

Fast forward nearly five years and the two careers are at very different stages. Smith was thrust into the starting role right away and endured a tumultuous first 2½ seasons in San Francisco, then missed a year and a half with a severe shoulder injury, and is now getting a second chance to run the 49ers offense with the jury still out on his long-term potential.

Meanwhile, Rodgers watched and learned for three years behind a future Hall of Famer, took the reins last year, earned a sizable contract extension with more than 4,000 passing yards, and is continuing the solid start to his playing career in 2009 with all projections pointing up.

While some might declare Sunday's head-to-head matchup at Lambeau Field the final referendum on which quarterback should have been taken No. 1 back in 2005, it's nowhere near that simple. The circumstances under which the two have grown and developed as NFL players have been dramatically different, and that says as much as anything about where Smith and Rodgers are now.

"The path that you're put on has a lot to do with your success," said Packers Head Coach Mike McCarthy, who is the other figure in this tale of two quarterbacks, having been the newly hired offensive coordinator in San Francisco in 2005 who was involved in the decision to draft Smith rather than Rodgers.

"There's a lot of factors that go into developing a quarterback. Obviously they both had unique ability to even be considered to be part of the conversation of being the No. 1 pick in the National Football League. I think that in itself says a lot about both Aaron and Alex.

"But the path that you take, the situations that you're put in at an early part in your career have as much to do with it as anything. The players around you, where you are as far as in your development, what offense you're running. I think (Smith has) been put through a tough situation."

That's too true. In 2005, Smith was viewed as the potential savior for a franchise that had gone 2-14 the year before, hired a new coach in Mike Nolan and was rebuilding a roster around a quarterback adjusting from a spread offense in college at Utah to a traditional West Coast pro passing attack.

On top of that, when McCarthy left the 49ers after that first year to come to Green Bay, it began a stretch in San Francisco that has featured five offensive coordinators over the past five seasons, which would make it difficult for any quarterback to develop continuity and consistency.

Meanwhile, Rodgers entered the NFL without any expectations of having to play right away, and even with the head coaching change in 2006, the offensive system remained fairly similar. In addition, he's spent the last four years with the same head coach (McCarthy) and quarterbacks coach (Tom Clements), and the last three with the same offensive coordinator (Joe Philbin).

"I wouldn't change what happened," Rodgers said. "It was difficult to go through that one day in April, but I think it's made all the difference now looking back four and a half years later and where I'm at and the situation I'm in -- to be living in a great city like Green Bay and playing for an amazing team with the tradition the Green Bay Packers have and with great fans and with a great opportunity here, with a good group of guys to make a run this year."

The well-chronicled, long and agonizing wait Rodgers endured on draft day was an early obstacle to overcome, as was the Cal-Berkeley alum's disappointment of being passed over by his hometown and boyhood team. Then upon McCarthy's arrival in 2006, the two immediately had to bury any hatchet that might exist over the decisions in San Francisco from the prior year.

Rodgers said McCarthy took the initiative to do that, with the two focusing on moving forward together, and since then Rodgers' progress has been steady and noticeable. The contract extension he received last year was a message from the organization that if he stays healthy, he's viewed as the quarterback in Green Bay for perhaps the next decade.

Which of course begs the question, could that have been Smith, had the situations been reversed? Or could Rodgers be the one already on his second chance and still fighting to prove he can be a reliable and productive NFL quarterback, had the 49ers chosen him?

"Who knows how things could have changed," said Smith, who is now quarterbacking a 49ers team that has very few players remaining from the one he walked into as a rookie in 2005. "We've taken different paths and here we are meeting five years later.

"The quarterback position is so unique in that it's dependent on so many people. Not just players, but coaches, the organization, everything, to have a chance to go out on the field and be successful. Every individual scenario is unique to itself. Who knows how it would have played out, but the bottom line is I came here and have had the career I've had, and I'm just glad to be where I am. I'm not looking back with regret on anything. I've got my chance now and I'm trying to make the most of it."

The other debate inevitably raised as Smith's and Rodgers' paths are retraced this week is whether young quarterbacks are better off sitting on the bench at first, allowing them more time to adjust to the pro game.

San Francisco head coach Mike Singletary believes that is the best way to go, particularly if there's an established veteran for the younger quarterback to learn from, the very situation Rodgers encountered.

"If you want to show the young guy how it's supposed to be done, the study habits and all those things, I think it's a tremendous advantage for him to have those few years on the bench and then come in and just kind of pick up where he left off," Singletary said.

{sportsad300}But there's also no magic formula. Last year, rookie first-round draft picks Matt Ryan in Atlanta and Joe Flacco in Baltimore were thrown into the fire and led their teams to playoff berths. Ryan came into Lambeau Field and beat the Packers in Week 5 last year, while Flacco took the Ravens to the AFC Championship Game and will visit the Packers in two weeks.

"It depends on the individual, the maturity of the individual," Philbin said. "Matt Ryan I think was a fifth-year guy (at Boston College). Flacco was a transfer from Pitt (to Delaware), and he had been around five (years). You probably have to analyze all that stuff.

"I've heard people say you need three years to be a good O-lineman in the NFL. I don't know if that's true or not. For some guys, yeah. But some guys who get it, they don't need that long. It's a case-by-case basis, probably."

Which brings us back to the cases of Smith and Rodgers, both of whom entered the 2005 draft a year early. That fact can't be overlooked here, as it forced the teams evaluating them during the draft process to make even more extended projections than normal.

"It's interesting to see them both now because you just recall how young both those guys were," McCarthy said. "I think they might have both been 20 years old. They were both extremely young coming out and had a lot in front of them."

In other words, there was no clear-cut answer as to whom to draft first or which was set up to have a better career.

Perhaps Smith and Rodgers were simply destined to be linked from the day back in 2003 when Smith got his first start at quarterback for Utah. It was against Cal, and Rodgers - who had not yet taken over as the full-time starter for the Bears - came off the bench to rally his team from a 14-0 deficit to a 24-21 lead, only to see Smith's Utes score 10 points in the fourth quarter to win 31-24.

What significance does that result carry? At this point, no more than the draft slots each quarterback occupied 4½ years ago. Even now, Smith says he wouldn't change anything, and neither would Rodgers.

"Obviously at the time you're wondering where's God's plan in all this, but I think looking back you can see His hand in all of that," Rodgers said.

"You just have to trust that you're in the right spot for the right reasons."

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