It took four years, but Aaron Rodgers finally made good on his prediction. Four years ago, the San Francisco 49ers were going back-and-forth about which quarterback to take with the No. 1 overall pick — Alex Smith, an athletic signal-caller who put up prolific numbers in Utah's Urban Meyer-coached spread offense or Aaron Rodgers, the Chico, Calif., native who grew up idolizing Joe Montana and the Niners and played across the Bay Bridge at Cal, where he led one of the nation's top offenses. The Niners went with Smith, while Rodgers slipped to the Packers at No. 24.
Interviewed shortly after his selection, Rodgers was asked how disappointed he was that the 49ers didn't take him with the No. 1 pick. He answered, "Not as disappointed as they're going to be that they didn't take me."
After joining their teams, the careers of Smith and Rodgers could not have taken more divergent paths. Smith played under three offensive coordinators his first three years and was in and out of the starting lineup. He threw 19 touchdowns against 41 interceptions. In 2008, Smith was looking like a bust, losing his starting spot to J.T. O'Sullivan and eventually being placed on season-ending injured reserve with a broken bone in his shoulder. He regained his starting spot midway through this season and has shown glimpses of being a decent player. But nowhere near the player Rodgers has become.
Rodgers joined Green Bay and promptly took a seat on the bench behind Brett Favre for three seasons. Only after the future Hall of Fame quarterback's messy divorce from the team did Rodgers get into the starting lineup. He responded with 28 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and more than 4,000 yards in his first year starting. This season, he's on pace for an even more impressive season statistically. But more importantly, his team is on pace for more than the six wins it notched in 2008.
In his first face-off against the team that passed him over, Rodgers lit up the Niners on 22-of-31 passes for 274 yards and two touchdowns, hooking up with seven different receivers. And that was just by halftime. While Smith led the Niners on a spirited comeback, it was clear to everyone at the end of the day who's the better NFL quarterback. Green Bay won the game 30-24 as Rodgers finished 32-of-45 for 344 yards, without an interception for the fourth time in the last five games. You never know how things might have worked out under different circumstances. Rodgers could have faced similar troubles being thrown into the fire as a rookie. But five years into their pro careers, Rodgers' post-draft comments are looking pretty prophetic.
2.) Season-ending injuries will test this defense
CB Al Harris
Scott Boehm/Getty Images
Rookie Brad Jones probably takes over for Kampman. Jones has a start under his belt against Dallas when Kampman was held out with the aftereffects of a concussion the week prior. A three-year starter in a 3-4 defense at Colorado, Jones had seven tackles against Dallas and looked more natural dropping into coverage than Kampman, a converted defensive end. While his performance had likely earned him some increased snaps, no one thought he'd supplant Kampman for a starting spot.
But the reality is that a starting spot is often one play away. Now, Jones will get an extended audition for a spot that most figured would be open next season. Kampman was one of the NFL's best pass-rushing defensive ends, but it's been a bumpy transition to outside linebacker as the scheme has pulled him away from his strength. Kampman, in the last year of his contract, seemed destined for a tag-and-trade deal that would have sent him to a team playing a 4-3 scheme and his familiar end spot. But with an eight- to 10-month rehab assignment, it's hard to say how things will play out.
Tramon Williams will slide into Harris' spot. It's the second time in two seasons he'll fill in for him, having taken over for Harris when he suffered a freak spleen injury. While the team showed little drop-off with him in the starting lineup then, he hasn't looked as sharp this season and has been the target of opposing quarterback's who have looked to exploit him in matchups when the Packers play a nickel defense. It remains to be seen how he'll respond to a starting role this time around.
The real concern, however, is that with Williams in the starting lineup, Jarrett Bush moves up to the nickel back and rookie Brandon Underwood becomes the dime back. Neither has shown they're ready for that type of increased role. In fact, expect the Packers to play more of their "Big Okie" five-linebacker package with Brandon Chillar, rather than put Bush or Underwood on the field for an extended time. But at the end of the day, the loss of Kampman and Harris can't be made up by two players. It needs to be made up by all 11 defensive players — on the field and in the locker room.
3.) Finley makes this offense dangerous
TE Jermichael Finley
Scott Boehm/Getty Images
Finley has had bigger games than he did on Sunday, when he was targeted a team-high 10 times, but his value to a potent offense goes beyond his stats. His return from a knee injury suffered a month ago at Cleveland couldn't have come at a better time. At 6-foot-5, 247 pounds, Finley is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. He's too fast to cover with a linebacker, too athletic for most safeties and can outmuscle a cornerback. When the Packers line him up wide in a four-wide receiver set, teams have to decide if they're going to put their best defender on Finley or on a receiver like Donald Driver or Greg Jennings — both of whom have their own share of big-play ability and both of whom can line up in the slot, where there's more route options available. Either way, it's a win for the offense.
The defense took two big hits with the loss of Aaron Kampman and Al Harris to season-ending knee injuries. Finley's ability to help the Packers put up more points could be more important to the team's playoff chances than who steps into the defensive starting lineup.
4.) Grant is hitting his stride
In between Aaron Rodgers' slicing and dicing the 49ers for 344 yards and two touchdowns, Ryan Grant was mashing them for 129 yards on 21 carries and a season-best 6.1 yards per carry. This was Grant at his best, finding the cutback lanes and not letting the first would-be tackler take him down. After a less-than-impressive start to the season, Grant is picking up steam at just the right time and is on pace for a career-best 1,300-yard season. He's ranked ninth in the NFL and fifth in the NFC. That he had his best day against one of the league's top rushing defenses makes it all the more satisfying.
San Francisco entered the game ranked No. 1 in yards allowed per carry (3.3) and No. 3 in rushing yards allowed per game (87.7). Not only did Grant top 6 yards per carry, he averaged a whopping 7 yards on 10 first-half carries. That success against that defense was a lot more meaningful than the 148 yards on 27 carries (5.5 average) he had against Cleveland. And when Green Bay needed to grind out the clock at the end of the game, Grant kicked in with three rushes for 27 yards as the team ran on six of the final seven plays before Rodgers began the "victory-formation" kneeldowns.
5.) D-Line's first half was crucial to win
San Francisco running back Frank Gore ripped off a 42-yard run on his team's second offensive play. It was the longest run the Packers had given up all year, and defensive end Johnny Jolly said he was at fault after misreading the play. As it turned out, that would be about the only mistake Jolly or his linemates made on Sunday. They held Gore to just 14 more yards in the first half (and 3 yards in the second half), as Green Bay jumped out to a 23-3 lead.
And it wasn't just Gore who was getting thumped. Nose tackle Ryan Pickett made one of the key stops of the day when he stuffed fullback Noran Morris on a first-quarter third-and-inches play that resulted in a field goal. The Packers' D-line was also busy harassing Alex Smith into 3-for-7 passing for 5 yards in the first half, with ends Cullen Jenkins and rookie B.J. Raji collecting sacks.
Jenkins also had a big tackle for a loss on the day and Jolly batted down two passes in the second half as San Francisco was spreading the field and mounting a comeback. Linebackers may get the lion's share of the glory in the 3-4 scheme, but it can't happen without tough play up front. Jolly and Jenkins are approaching a Pro Bowl-level of play, Pickett remains an underrated force inside, and Raji is beginning to show the skills that made him the No. 10 overall pick in April's draft.
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W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at email@example.com.