The decision still haunts some 49ers fans to this day.
In April 2005, the Niners had the No. 1 overall pick in the draft and were desperate for a franchise quarterback to reinvigorate an organization that had fallen on hard times. The top two options were Cal’s Aaron Rodgers and Utah’s Alex Smith.
The Niners took Smith and Rodgers was forced to agonizingly wait until the Green Bay Packers finally selected him at No. 24 overall.
Since then, Smith’s career has been filled with injuries and a variety of other ups and downs, while Rodgers, after sitting behind Brett Favre for a couple years, has blossomed into arguably the top quarterback in the NFL and is coming off an MVP season.
But now, after a 2011 season in which Smith — finally healthy and surrounded by a talented cast — led the 49ers to a 13-3 record and reached the NFC Championship Game and Rodgers’ Packers finished 15-1 after winning the Super Bowl the year prior, both are firmly entrenched as starters.
And when they kick off the season against one another today at Lambeau Field, it will be — for the first time — as part of the two teams favored to win the NFC.
It’s been a bit of a journey for both players, but it’s led to a mutual respect and bond along the way.
“Yeah, [we were] kind of pitted against each other coming out of college,” Smith said. “It’s funny, just going through that, kind of became pretty good friends, had a lot in common.”
Rodgers echoed Smith’s sentiments and says he enjoys keeping tabs on the San Francisco signal-caller.
“I’ve been friends with him since we were 21 and I’ve followed his career,” Rodgers said. “It’s nice to have been able to reconnect over the last year or so.”
While both lead top-level NFL teams, the perception of the two couldn’t be more different.
Rodgers had one of the best seasons in NFL history with 4,643 passing yards, 45 touchdowns and a league-record 122.5 rating in 2011. He’s viewed as a possible Hall of Famer down the road with multiple MVPs and Super Bowls in his future.
On the other hand, Smith, despite a very solid 2011 season in which he passed for 3,144 yards with 17 touchdowns and only five interceptions, is often labeled as a “game manager.”
It’s a handle Rodgers feels isn’t accurate.
“I think that term is a condescending term for quarterbacks,” Rodgers said. “I don’t think he’s a game manager, I think he’s a guy who takes care of the football and makes a lot of plays.”
When the two clubs last met in 2010, the Packers rolled to a 34-16 win, but Smith didn’t play, as Troy Smith was starting for San Francisco at the time.
So today offers the first time since 2009 that Rodgers and Smith will share the field at the same time. But Smith isn’t getting caught up in the QB hoopla.
“Obviously, getting ready to play him, but for me I’m thinking more about the defense than him,” Smith said. “I’ll get to see him after.”