When we look at Aaron Rodgers now in his seventh year in the league and fourth as a starter, we’re seeing more than just sheer dominance. We’re seeing a quarterback who rarely stumbles, and rarely even puts himself in a position to make a mistake.
Through 11 games this year he’s thrown just four interceptions to his 33 touchdowns. He’s in the top five in every major passing category, and his quarterback rating of 127.7 puts him five games away from setting a new single-season record. His 3,475 passing yards also puts him on pace to flirt with Dan Marino’s single-season record, and he’s had seven 300-yard games, and three games with four touchdowns.
He’s been amazing and unbreakable, which is why it’s so entertaining to pick up our dusty draft looking glasses, and gaze back on a time when we dared to doubt Rodgers, and when the questions about his ability to replace Brett Favre in Green Bay seemed real and daunting.
Rodgers’ draft story is worn and tired now. He was neck-and-neck with Alex Smith entering draft day in the race to be the first overall pick in 2005, and the 49ers chose Smith. With few other QB-needy teams in the first round, Rodgers plummeted all the way to the Packers’ waiting lap at 24th overall, where he’d watch and learn in the frosty north for three years before finally starting in 2008.
That’s only three years ago, a stretch of time that’s still significant, but not necessarily life-altering for most ordinary folk. Hell, most annoying parents ask where you’ll be in five years, but in the NFL, three years is a lifetime, and it’s more than enough time to separate the JaMarcus Russells from the Matt Ryans.
So step inside our NFL time machine, and let’s go back to April of 2005, a time when we didn’t know which highly-touted quarterback (Smith or Rodgers) would dazzle, and which would disappoint.
It was a time when fans were in the same position they’re in every April. They’re left to make judgments based on college games that occurred months ago, and the observations of draft experts that have passed through several broken telephone lines, the same professional opinions that frequently shift and waffle. You know, the draft game we play every April.
While 49ers fans were sifting through that verbal jungle, Rodgers was dealing with this:
The Tedford Effect refers to Jeff Tedford, Rodgers’ coach at the University of California who’s widely viewed as a quarterback guru. The problem with Tedford’s guru status is his guru methods that don’t translate into NFL success, or at least not long-term NFL success. As the chart above shows, infamous busts like Joey Harrington and Akili Smith were tutored by Tedford.
Beyond that hurdle, there were also questions about Rodgers’ throwing motion and overall mechanics, questions that ranged in severity depending on the source.
Pete Carroll was still the head coach of USC at the time, a chief rival to the Golden Bears in the former PAC 10. Overall Carroll endorsed Rodgers as a fine No. 1 pick for the 49ers, but he was critical of his throwing motion, criticism captured in early April that year by the San Francisco Chronicle:
Carroll, a former NFL head coach, said Rodgers “seemed to be a natural decision-maker,” but described his throwing motion as “mechanical,” an assessment Tedford disputes.
Translation: he has great field instincts and vision, but right now his fundamentals are raw and rigid, and there’s danger lurking if he’s asked to venture far from his comfort zone in an offense.
Rodgers was familiar with that criticism, and even the specific term Carroll used. An Associated Press analysis of the draft jostling outlined the genesis of the stones thrown at Rodgers, and asked him for a rebuttal.
Rodgers holds the ball high and tight while dropping back to pass with precise footwork, and Rodgers acknowledged some people don’t think he looks like an NFL quarterback.
“Being mechanical is not a bad thing,” Rodgers said. “I think it’s better than holding the ball lower and patting the ball, or taking one of your hands off the ball or something. I do the same thing every time, and the ball is high, and it gets out of my hand quick.”
Being mechanical hasn’t slowed Rodgers whatsoever, and he’s also demonstrated that he isn’t purely mechanical, showing athleticism and an ability and willingness to throw on the run. But the pre-draft poking included questions about those skills too.
In an April 17, 2005 draft preview, the Chronicle’s Kevin Lynch characterized Rodgers’ liabilities as being “his height (he’s 6-foot-2) and lack of elusiveness.”
Since taking over as a starter in 2008, Rodgers has 754 rushing yards for an average of 188.5 per year, and he’s scored with his feet 15 times. Last year his 356 rushing yards were a career-high, and he finished third in rushing yards among quarterbacks behind only Michael Vick and Josh Freeman.
As far as his height is concerned, well, the ladies dig it.
Prior to his plummet, Rodgers even had to defend himself against Braylon Edwards, the Michigan standout who also flirted with the draft’s top spot in 2005 before going to Cleveland at No. 3. His defense was well versed and logical, but evidently the combination of Charlie Frye and Derek Anderson was sufficient for the Browns.
‘Braylon is a phenomenal player but a receiver catches the ball only a few times a game,” Rodgers argued effectively. “The quarterback touches the ball every play. My role on the team and importance to the offense is a little more important on each play (than a receiver).”
Six years later, Edwards is on his third team, and he’s an afterthought for touches in San Francisco’s passing game behind Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, and Teddy Ginn.
Meanwhile, after growing tired of Edwards’ petulance the Browns shipped him off, and they’re still unsure about Colt McCoy and his future as an NFL quarterback. Since the beginning of the 2006 season, eight quarterbacks have started a game for the Browns.
Prior to that draft, Rodgers’ agent Mark Sullivan described San Francisco’s choice as one that’s torn between three baskets.
“The way I’ve described it, the 49ers have three baskets,” he said. “Alex Smith is one basket, Aaron Rodgers is another basket, and trading the pick is the third basket. Whichever basket is most appealing to them, that’s the one they’ll take.”
The 49ers are finally satisfied with the contents of their basket now, but only after six seasons with a record of .500 or worse led to the hiring of a coach who understands how to best utilize Smith and optimize his talents.
The Packers are pleased with their basket, too, a gift basket that also included a set of 2010 championship rings. The other 21 teams that passed on Rodgers are somewhere in between, with some fine with their quarterback at the time, others finding solutions in the years since, and then others watching with regret.