Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers: Two Different Paths


Alex Smith currently sits at home after his sixth turbulent season with the San Francisco 49ers.  His mind is set on free agency, contemplating whether or not to sign with another team or return to the 49ers under their third coaching regime since Smith was selected number one overall in the 2005 draft.

Aaron Rodgers currently sits in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas after his sixth and most successful season with the Green Bay Packers.  His mind is set on the Super Bowl and winning the Packers’ fourth Super Bowl championship.

The NFL draft in 2005 stands out clear in my mind like it was last year.  It stands out now not for the excitement and joy that I remember feeling that day when the 49ers picked Smith as their next franchise quarterback but because of the failure of his career with San Francisco and the 49ers front office swing and miss on one of the top draft busts in NFL history.

In three seasons Rodgers has been the starting quarterback for the Packers after sitting three seasons waiting for his mentor Bret Favre to make up his mind about retiring.  Smith has had six seasons of ups and downs, okay mostly downs.  In Smith’s most successful season in 2006 he threw for 16 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.  Nothing to write home about but it was an improvement over his rookie season when he threw one touchdown and 11 interceptions.  With a weak offensive line and no offensive threats to help him out that year a lot of his success was attributed to offensive coordinator Norv Turner.  However after the 2006 season Turner was hired to coach the San Diego Chargers.   The 49ers hired quarterbacks coach Jim Hostler not because of his experience but to keep the terminology intact that Turner taught Smith which included a mixture of Mike McCarthy’s West Coast offense who was Smith’s first offensive coordinator in the NFL.

As Smith entered his third NFL season with his third offensive coordinator Rodgers found himself again the backup to Favre who contemplated retirement for the first time of what would become many back-and-forth’s of retiring and un-retiring.  Rodgers would play in two games in replace of an injured Favre that season.

With all the promise that Turner was able to get out of Smith in 2006 it was quickly diminished by head coach Mike Nolan.  Hostler’s inexperienced play calling was also to blame but Nolan shattered the confidence of Smith when he questioned his toughness.  In the fourth game of the 2007 season against the Seahawks Smith separated his shoulder during a sack and would miss the next three weeks.  Smith did start three games after he returned however he was ineffective.  Smith said he could not play effectively because his shoulder was still injured while Nolan questioned Smith’s toughness over the severity of the injury.  To make matters worse Nolan publicly aired his thoughts which did not sit well with Smith.  Smith would go on injured reserve and miss the last four games.  The relationship between Nolan and Smith was broken and in 2008 Smith had to compete for the starting job with J.T. O’Sullivan and Shaun Hill.  Smith was named the backup heading into the 2008 season as Nolan named O’Sullivan the starting quarterback as he was more familiar with new offensive coordinator Mike Martz’ system.  In reality I believe Nolan was never going to name Smith the starter no matter if Hostler had been retained or if Smith deserved to be the starter.  Smith suffered his second shoulder injury in less than a year and was placed on injured reserve three days after the first game of the 2008 season. 

Entering his fourth NFL season Rodgers was the victim of his own drama as well but unlike Smith who had his differences with his head coach Rodgers had differences with his mentor.  As any football fan knows the retiring/un-retiring carousal of Favre version 2008 was an awkward and heated one.  At the time I thought the 49ers still had done the right thing by drafting Smith instead of Rodgers because Rodgers was unproven and his mentor didn’t want to give him the reins.  Soon we would find out that Favre was being selfish and Rodgers is everything you would want in an NFL quarterback.  I thought well maybe Rodgers is not as good as everyone thought he was and the 49ers drafted the correct quarterback.  Little did I know learning for three years on the bench with a future Hall of Famer as your mentor is the best thing you could do to an NFL quarterback.  Throwing him out to the wolves like the 49ers did to Smith and then questioning his toughness when he fails is not the way to develop a franchise quarterback.

One thing has stood out since Rodgers became a full-time starter in 2008: Rodgers has lead his team to 27 victories and a berth in this year’s Super Bowl while Smith has lead the 49ers to only eight wins.  In 2008 Smith did not start a single game however of the ten he started in 2009 five were victories and in 2010 he won three of the ten games he started.

The biggest difference in what has lead Rodgers’ path to Super Bowl XLV and Smith’s path to being an unrestricted free agent and most likely not starting anywhere next season is the 49ers front office blunders and the lack of thereof by the Packers front office.  In the six years since the 49ers drafted Smith the 49ers are now on their third head coach while the Packers have had two head coaches with McCarthy having served at the position since 2006.  The stability at offensive coordinator is to blame as well with the 49ers having had six different coordinators while the Packers have had three with current play caller Joe Philbin serving in the position since 2007, one season before Rodgers became a full-time starter.  Other factors include Smith playing in a spread offense in college while at University of Utah as Rodgers played in a pro-style offense at Cal.  If the 49ers front office wants to find their next franchise quarterback in this year’s draft it would be insane for them to draft a quarterback who played in a spread offense in college.  Then again a consistent head coach who values the quarterback position, how this was lost on Nolan and Singletary is beyond me but I digress, should help the 49ers next quarterback under the tutelage of Jim Harbaugh

People have asked me if I think Rodgers would have succeeded with the 49ers as he has with the Packers given the same situation.  The answer is no but that is a what if question which is impossible to answer.  However I do indulge the people who ask me this question by saying Rodgers would have been more successful than Smith but there is no way the 49ers would be in a Super Bowl this season or in any of the previous seasons.  The 49ers did not have the right front office personnel in place like the Packers of the last six years to put the 49ers in the same position as the Packers are this season.   The 49ers front office has begun the turnaround of years of hiring horrible coaches and drafting busts, or so we hope with the Harbaugh regime.  The failed Alex Smith experiment of the past six years is still to be blamed on the 49ers front office.  Simply put the Packers hired great front office personnel and coaches who made great roster moves and drafted the right players to be a winning team.  The 49ers were the opposite.  This is what happens when competent people run a football organization.