While writing my last article on the Packers Draft Strategy I argued that the reason for the huge difference in the drafting strategy and fortunes of the San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers started exactly on April 23rd, 2005 at 12PM EST when the 2005 NFL draft officially opened “with the first overall pick, the San Francisco 49ers select: Alex Smith, quarterback, University of Utah”.
I thought about that for a while and decided that I couldn’t just blame the last 5 years of 49ers futility solely on Alex Smith. To his credit I think he has managed to be a pretty decent quarterback when you factor in that he’s had a different offensive coordinator every season and had to deal with a carousel of playbooks and offensive philosophies. Add in a fan base that decidedly doesn’t love him and a team that doesn’t really support him (how can you support any quarterback after he’s been benched and then thrown back in countless times?) That amount of discourse is bound to drag down even the best quarterback. There had to be something else that factored into it.
Obviously the 2004 49ers were a mess, having the 1st overall pick in the draft is evidence enough, but in reality the Packers probably overachieved in 2004. The 2004 squad was filled with aging stars with heavy contracts and a disastrous 2004 draft only made matters worse where the former GM Mike Sherman probably reached for cornerback Ahmad Caroll in the 1st round (who was cut 2 years later) and definitely reached for punter B.J. Sanders in the 3rd (lasted only 1 season). In 2005, the Packers fell drastically to 4-12, their worst record since 1991. 2005 also marked the first year of Ted Thompson’s salary cap /youth movement rebuilding project, with popular but highly paid players like Mike Wahle, Marco Riveria and Darren Sharper leaving the team.
So both teams really were in somewhat of a mess, with only the Packers’ record masking many of the issues. But in terms of raw talent and ability, in 2005 there wasn’t much of a difference between Smith and Rodgers; many predicted that either one could go as the 1st overall pick and the other wasn’t likely to last much longer. So what was the difference between the development of Smith and Rodgers?
In two words: Brett Favre.
Now this angle has a long and storied history, which every analyst, sportswriter and fan has written about ad nauseam. In my opinion, it’s not Brett Favre himself that helped Aaron Rodgers become the quarterback that he is today, it’s the “Legend of Brett Favre”.
Coming into the 2005 season, Brett Farve was maybe one step under Lombardi and Lambeau; he was a living god on the football field. Being the quarterback who brought the downtrodden Packers back into victory after 20 years of ineptitude and winning a Super Bowl will do that for you. It didn’t matter that he never followed the game plan and that he had a propensity to throw interceptions at the worst times; it almost endeared him more to the fans, he was the “gunslinger” and the “riverboat gambler”.
Basically Favre could do no wrong; his interceptions weren’t stupid they were just “gambles” even though really they were just stupid. The media was quick to deflect blame away from Favre, his poor play was mostly attributed to other players, the stadium or the weather, anything but Favre himself.
And naturally the player who bought in most to the “Legend of Brett Favre” was Favre himself. So when the Packers drafted Aaron Rodgers in 2005, it’s obvious why Favre gave him the cold shoulder; Favre was the Green Bay Packers, beloved by the fans and the media and here was his heir apparent, ready to take that all away from him. Most people wouldn’t be happy in that situation.
Under those circumstances, it’s pretty easy to see why Favre’s and Rodgers’ relationship was considered “professional” at best. Favre wasn’t in the mood to foster his heir apparent, and if anything, Rodgers playing poorly only meant that the “Legend of Brett Favre” would grow bigger. So when Favre was finally traded away, what was his biggest contribution to the development of Aaron Rodgers? You guessed it, the “Legend of Brett Favre”. It was the legend and myth that Brett Favre was the best quarterback since sliced bread and not Favre himself that gave Aaron Rodgers the time and the drive to succeed.
- The “Legend of Brett Favre” forced Rodgers to sit and watch: No matter how poorly Favre was playing, Favre was never going to be benched or cut, it was Brett Favre for Christ sakes. The best that Rodgers could ever hope for (because Favre never sat out a game due to injuries either) was the preseason and mop up duty, not exactly the glory that a 1st round quarterback dreams about. Nevertheless, it gave Rodgers the time to develop.
- The “Legend of Brett Favre” was better than Rodgers: At some point in Rodger’s 3 years of apprenticeship under Favre he became as good, if not better than Favre. But that didn’t matter because the myth of Brett Favre was perfect. It didn’t really matter if Rodgers was better than Favre, because the “Legend of Brett Favre” was better than either one of them.
- The “Legend of Brett Favre” forced Rodgers to be humble: Even while Favre was steadily declining in ability, the “Legend of Brett Favre” persisted. Rodgers came to the realization that he would never be able to replace the “Legend of Favre” (its not like Steve Young made people forget about Joe Montana), and that he would forever be compared to the “Legend of Favre”. Even now, Rodgers is being compared to Farve circa 1996, when he was at his prime instead of Farve circa 2010, which was one of the worse in his career.
- The “Legend of Brett Favre” drove Rodgers to be better: just because the myth of Brett Favre humbled Rodgers doesn’t mean that he lost his drive; if anything it seemed to make Rodgers drive even stronger, while he could never be better than the myth of Brett Favre, he could be better than Favre himself, and in 2008 he proved to GM Ted Thompson that he was good enough to the point where Thompson was able to trade away Favre, much to the outrage of the “Legend of Brett Favre”.
Compare that to the situation Alex Smith found himself in. As the 1st overall pick he was expected to be the immediate face of the franchise and lead the 49ers back to victory; Alex Smith the player didn’t earn a starting spot, Alex Smith the “2005 1st overall draft pick” and Alex Smith the “six year, 49.5 million dollar contract” earned it. Where does his drive come from? He was probably better than Tim Rattay before even being drafted, he already had the biggest contract at that time and he was already famous as the 1st overall draft pick.
Ironically, Smith’s career was probably at its pinnacle before he even stepped onto the field; realistically, the only 1st overall quarterback who has eclipsed his 1st overall status in the last 15 yeras is Peyton Manning and maybe Eli Manning and maybe Micheal Vick. For Smith there wasn’t the push of a legend to advance his development, and without a legend to hold him out of the lineup, he was probably forced to start way ahead of schedule. That led to losses, which lead to coaching changes, which lead to more losses and you can see a vicious cycle starting.
Many people wonder what would have happened if Aaron Rodgers had gotten to play for his hometown team instead of Alex Smith. I’ve always wondered how Alex Smith might be playing now if he had sat behind the “Legend of Brett Favre”.
Thomas Hobbes is a staff writer for Jersey Al’s AllGreenBayPackers.com.