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Rivals Alex Smith, Rodgers to meet

Published: Friday, Sep. 7, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Tuesday, Sep. 11, 2012 - 9:23 am

SANTA CLARA – Former coach Mike Nolan and the 49ers wanted everyone to think they had a pair of aces entering the 2005 draft.

They wouldn't reveal which quarterback they were leaning toward – Alex Smith or Aaron Rodgers – in an effort to spark a trade that would bring a bounty of extra picks to a 49ers roster that was starved for talent.

Nolan even made a surprise visit to the media trailer a few days before the draft. He pulled up a few chairs, then polled the five beat writers on whom they thought the 49ers would take with the No. 1 overall pick. Two went with Rodgers. Two chose Smith. One took Michigan wide receiver Braylon Edwards.

Nolan hardly could contain his glee. He had everyone guessing.

The rest of the league, however, considered Nolan's hand to be, at best, a pair of jacks.

The lucrative, franchise-altering trade offer didn't materialize, and the 49ers chose the player they'd actually locked in on for some time.

They had the quarterbacks rated similarly in most categories. Rodgers, in fact, had a stronger arm and had the better predraft workout of the two. But Nolan and then-personnel chief Scot McCloughan were blown away by Smith's intangibles.

They loved his leadership, character, work ethic, toughness and obedience. They concluded that Smith was better equipped to lead a ragtag, rebuilding squad than Rodgers, whose temperament runs hotter than the restrained and responsible Smith.

It's something they still believe.

Rodgers, of course, has become a star. He's been a Super Bowl MVP and the league MVP, and finished the 2011 season with the highest passer rating – 122.5 – ever for a starting quarterback. He's 2-0 against Smith and San Francisco, and he's thrown five touchdowns and no interceptions in those games.

The 49ers' rejoinder? It's always has been, "OK, but would Rodgers have been able to weather the hailstorm that battered Smith in the years following the draft?"

The implication is that, at best, Rodgers would not have had the success in San Francisco he's had in Green Bay, and at worst, he would have crumbled under the adversity.

The 49ers made some mistakes in 2005.

They overestimated Smith's athleticism and underestimated Rodgers. The Green Bay quarterback has played in one fewer game than Smith, but he has nearly double the rushing yards – 1,183 to 629 – and four times the rushing touchdowns, 16 to 4.

They didn't foresee then-offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy – hard to blame them for this – bolting for Green Bay after one season, the first of many departures at offensive coordinator that would help torpedo the early part of Smith's career.

And they underestimated Rodgers' strength of character. Rodgers has achieved what was once thought impossible in Green Bay – filling the shoes of Brett Favre.

But one area in which Nolan and McCloughan didn't err was Smith's intangibles. Toughness and resilience, in fact, may be the quarterback's greatest attributes.

He's endured 172 sacks, two shoulder surgeries, the failed Nolan and Mike Singletary regimes and a revolving door at offensive coordinator. After surviving that barrage, he finally gets to face Rodgers – his longtime friend and adversary – on more equal footing.

In the past, it was impossible to truly compare Rodgers and Smith because one, picked No. 24 overall, joined a very good team while the other, picked No. 1 overall, became part of a very bad one. Today, one season after Packers and 49ers finished first and second in the NFC, respectively, the quarterback comparison is more valid.

Nolan had an interesting prediction in April 2005. He said, "Rodgers might have better NFL numbers than Alex, but we'll win with my guy."

On Sunday, we'll finally get to see if he was right.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Matthew Barrows

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