KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Their names have been linked since the first round of the 2005 NFL Draft when the first player selected was University of Utah quarterback Alex Smith, and choice No. 24 was University of California quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
A decade later, Smith and Rodgers will be together in Lambeau Field when the Chiefs and Packers play Monday night.
It’s been quite a journey for both men since that day at draft headquarters in New York when Smith was grabbed by San Francisco with the first choice and Rodgers was forced to wait through 23 more picks before the Green Bay Packers called his name.
They hold very different standings 10 years later.
Rodgers is considered one of the two or three best quarterbacks in the league, with a pair of MVP honors and remarkable career numbers in completion percentage (66 percent), touchdown passes (231), lack of interceptions (57) and passer rating (106.4).
All this came after he spent his first three seasons on the Packers bench, behind one of the position’s great ironmen, Brett Favre.
Did sitting and watching Favre hinder Rodgers’ development as a starting NFL quarterback? Packers head coach Mike McCarthy doesn’t think that was the case at all.
“It’s not do you play the quarterback, it’s really is the team ready for the rookie quarterback?” said McCarthy, who has an interesting view of Smith and Rodgers as the offensive coordinator in San Francisco in 2005 before becoming the head coach of the Packers in 2006.
“The situation was different with Brett (Favre) here,” McCarthy continued, “but I knew after our first year in 2006 we felt he (Rodgers) was ready to go, and in 2007 when he did get to play it was clear he was ready to go. It definitely helped him.”
Smith’s time in the spotlight as the No. 1 choice was pressure that he admits years later was not handled very well.
“Shoot, it was four or five years before you totally drop that,” Smith said of dealing with the first-choice designation. “It can be a lot of anxiety, you know, self-talk can get you and stuff like that. You can carry a lot of weight around and it was hard for me, hard for me early on.”
In his first three seasons with the 49ers, Smith made 30 starts, throwing 19 touchdown passes compared to 31 interceptions. San Francisco was 11-19 in those games.
Smith missed the 2008 season with a shoulder injury, and that happened to be the year where Rodgers became the Green Bay starter, replacing Favre. Since then, Rodgers has started 116 games in the regular season and playoffs, with the Packers posting a 78-38 record in those games.
For Smith, it would be two more seasons (2009-10) before he was able to produce on the field as the Niners starting quarterback. In 2011, he led San Francisco to a 13-3 record and into the NFC Championship Game where they lost to the New York Giants. The next season, Smith was 6-2-1 as the starter before a concussion sent him to the sidelines and he was replaced by Colin Kaepernick. That move ultimately led to his 2013 trade to the Chiefs.
“You just keep going and try to play through it,” Smith said of putting the No. 1 pressure behind him. “Stuff happens, good and bad, and I think eventually time—time is probably a big factor in that, at least with me it was. Just getting removed from it and letting it go.”
In hindsight, would Smith rather been the 24th selection in the first round or even the No. 2 pick, rather than the first name called?
“No, I mean, listen, I haven’t given that any thought,” Smith said. “I’m so thankful for where I’m at, personally and professionally, and obviously I wouldn’t want any of that changed over where I was picked.”
Rodgers said this week he’s never spent time thinking what might have happened if he was the No. 1 choice, not Smith.
“I don’t really play those what-if games,” Rodgers said. “He went to San Fran and had a lot of different coordinators and I got to come here … I’m happy where I’m at.”
Smith is still battling to reach Rodgers status in the league, especially when it comes to the Super Bowl ring the Packers quarterback wears. He thinks this season may be the best chance of his career because of the continuity that Andy Reid and his coaching staff have provided the Chiefs offense over the last three seasons.
“To have this kind of stability is rare in the NFL,” Smith said of an offensive coaching group that has not changed since joining the Chiefs in 2013. “It’s not just me, but all the guys here, to be able to play in the same system and to master it, master the details of the scheme, of your position, for all of us to get on the same page—it’s taken everybody … I think when you have that stability, obviously you’re able to do that.”
Monday night’s game will not be the first time Smith and Rodgers have been on the field with opposing teams.
In the 2012 season opener, San Francisco went to Green Bay and while Rodgers won the statistical battle (30 of 44 for 303 yards), Smith’s 49ers went home with a 30-22 victory thanks to touchdown passes to Randy Moss and Vernon Davis.