The Lessons of Smith, Rodgers

In San Francisco, the 49ers erred by playing a spread-offense quarterback before either Alex Smith or his teammates were ready. In Green Bay, Aaron Rodgers had the good fortune of waiting and Mike McCarthy got a second chance with a talented passer.

There's a lesson to be learned from the rise (and fall) of Alex Smith and the fall (and rise) of Aaron Rodgers.

With more and more colleges turning to the spread offense, there are going to be more and more first-round quarterback talents like Smith — a player with all the tools but a quirky and underdeveloped skill-set that needed time to adapt to the demands of the professional game.

The San Francisco 49ers held the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft and had narrowed their decision to Smith and Rodgers. The 49ers, of course, went with Smith — a pick that has been nothing short of a disaster, with Smith's resume consisting of 55.7 percent accuracy, 25 touchdowns, 37 interceptions and a 12-21 record as a starter heading into Sunday's game at Lambeau Field.

The lesson isn't to avoid quarterbacks who come from a spread offense.

The lesson is teams holding the first pick of the draft generally are terrible. A quarterback who is rooted in the spread simply isn't ready for prime time, nor is his supporting cast ready to cover up for a quarterback who isn't ready to handle the job. It's a franchise-crippling combination.

"If you're going to play a young quarterback early, the most important variable is: Is your football team ready for that?" Packers coach Mike McCarthy told reporters in San Francisco via a conference call on Wednesday. "The young quarterback is not ready. It's fairly obvious that it's not really possible to get a young man ready to endure an NFL season coming out of college. ... If you're trying to benefit a young QB, it helps to sit and let him watch."

That's exactly what Rodgers did: sit and watch. Stuck behind Brett Favre for his first three seasons, Rodgers — who came from a pro-style system at California — was ready to hit the ground running when his time arrived last year. While his career record as a starter is only 11-14, his numbers (63.4 percent, 46 touchdowns, 19 interceptions) at least give the Packers a chance to win almost every week.

As the 49ers' offensive coordinator, McCarthy was part of the coaching staff that — led by Mike Nolan — elected to go with Smith over Rodgers. Nolan's successor, Mike Singletary, wasn't part of the decision to draft Smith nor the decision to throw Smith into the starting lineup just one month into his rookie season.

Ready or not.

Alex Smith
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
"I think most quarterbacks are better off sitting, particularly if you have a guy like Brett Favre for him to learn from," Singletary said in a conference call with Packers beat reporters on Wednesday. "I think that is something that's worth paying for. If you can have a veteran quarterback that's toward the end of his career and you're going to bring in a young guy and you want to show the young guy how it's supposed to be done, the study habits and all of those things, I think it's a tremendous advantage for him to be able to have that few years on the bench and then come in and just kind of pick up where Brett left off."

While the Packers lucked into a top-tier quarterback in Rodgers, the 49ers have had to live with their painful decision of taking Smith.

That pain has been physical and mental.

Smith's throwing shoulder required surgery late in the 2007 season and again early in the 2008 season. Between the injuries, a mostly inadequate (but improving) supporting cast — the 49ers are 27-46 since Smith was drafted — and a run of five offensive coordinators in five seasons, Smith's road to stardom has taken so many detours that he might never find his way.

"You know, you're impacted so much, the quarterback position is so unique in the sense that you're dependent upon so many people, not just players — coaches, organization, everything — to have a chance to go out on the field and be successful," Smith said in a conference call with Packers beat reporters. "So, no question, every individual scenario is unique to itself and who knows how it would have played out. The bottom line is, though, I came here and had the career I've had and just (am) glad to be where I am, not looking back, regretting anything. I've got my chance now and trying to make the most of it."

While Smith has gone from the ecstasy of being the top overall pick to the agony of injuries, losses and disappointment, Rodgers has gone from the agony of having his draft disappointment chronicled pick by pick by the prying cameras of ESPN to the ecstasy of taking over a team with a talented supporting cast.

Aaron Rodgers
Scott Boehm/Getty Images
Funny how things worked out. While McCarthy was part of the 49ers' ill-fated decision to draft Smith, he's wound up hitching his career to Rodgers in Green Bay.

"When he got here," Rodgers recalled at his locker on Wednesday, "he basically said, ‘Hey, I was part of the decision when I was there, but I'm here now, let's move on, let's move forward together.'"

"I tell you, things happen for a reason. I'm a big believer in that," McCarthy said told reporters at Lambeau Field.

Heading into Sunday's key NFC game between the Packers (5-4) and 49ers (4-5), the NFL fates of Smith and Rodgers have gone in opposite directions.

Maybe Smith can salvage his career in San Francisco, even though he's been beaten out by journeymen like J.T. O'Sullivan and Shaun Hill. As it stands, though, the 49ers made a questionable decision by drafting Smith — and compounded it by asking him to lead the team when he wasn't ready to lift his teammates to a higher level and his teammates weren't ready to lift Smith to a higher level.

Maybe Rodgers won't become one of the all-time greats, like Favre or childhood idol Joe Montana. But the disappointment of draft day is a distant memory for a player with the good fortune of having his physical talents paired with talented teammates.

"I think you've got to trust that you're in the right spot for the right reasons," Rodgers said. "I think the organization really backing me right away with the support from Ted and Mike Sherman at the time, just all the feedback I would get was real positive: ‘Hey, you're going to get a chance at some point, you're going to be the guy.' It was tough at first, obviously, because of what happened, but I knew a week before the draft I wasn't going to get picked by the 49ers, so I had already started to get over that leading up to the draft. Now, it still hurt when my name wasn't called first, but it also hurt second, third, fourth, all the way down to 23. And then I got here and was excited about it, met Na'il Diggs on the plane ride over, and the rest is history."

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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