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Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Aaron Rodgers benefited from delays

By Mark Kreidler
Special to ESPN.com

It lays out so beautifully now, doesn't it? It's just like they drew it up.

Rodgers
Aaron Rodgers had to wait on draft day until the Packers took him at No. 24.

That time in the green room -- the four hours and 35 minutes Aaron Rodgers spent waiting to hear his name called in the 2005 NFL draft -- was divine intervention, not humiliation on a stick. Getting passed over by 21 teams, including the one that was seriously flirting with making him the No. 1 pick, was but a footnote to greatness.

Being chosen by a Green Bay franchise featuring a future Hall of Famer who was unwilling to seriously discuss giving up his job was a gateway to Rodgers' success, not the great wall of career obstruction. Sitting behind Brett Favre for three years ultimately produced seasoning, where bitterness easily might have pooled.

Today, one can look at Rodgers and see that he is on the verge of emphatically completing a historically rare feat: following a legend into a quarterback job and succeeding at it.

Really, though, one of the clear readings of Rodgers' journey is that just enough things went exactly wrong to eventually produce something terribly right.

Start with that '05 draft, a story that Packers fans already know well. Wait, don't start there. We'll get to the San Francisco 49ers' organizational face-plant in a minute. Begin, instead, with the idea that Rodgers landed on the football radar in the first place almost by mistake.

Rodgers graduated from high school in Chico, Calif., to zero scholarship offers from NCAA Division I programs. None. (Note to kids who love football: It's never really over, is it?) He enrolled at nearby Butte Community College. He was there, biding his time, when Cal football coach Jeff Tedford arrived to scout Butte's tight end. Tedford found a quarterback for his trouble.

After a breakout career at Cal, Rodgers was considered by some to be a draft risk, partly because Tedford's previous quarterback charges (Akili Smith and Kyle Boller, among others) had fared only modestly by NFL high-pick standards. Rodgers was knocked by some for being cocky, which, as the passage of time suggests, likely is one of the qualities -- firmly entrenched self-confidence -- that kept him going for three years as Favre's clipboard carrier. But there you go.

Alex Smith was the high-octane product of Urban Meyer's offense at Utah. He was a little taller than Rodgers and thought by some to be more pro-ready. Though Meyer cautioned that Smith would need adjustment time to figure out the NFL style, 49ers coach Mike Nolan and his front office, a group that included current Packers coach Mike McCarthy, were enchanted.

The 49ers took a long look at Rodgers, the Northern California kid who grew up idolizing Joe Montana and had San Francisco at the top of the list of teams for which he would most like to play. But on draft day, with the first overall pick, the Niners blew right by him in favor of Smith.

Smith
Alex Smith, who was the No. 1 pick in 2005, was thrown into the the starting lineup and battered by opposing defenses.

Missed it by that much.

Summoned to New York by the NFL for draft day, Rodgers proceeded to sit in the waiting room through 23 picks, the room gradually emptying out and the other handful of players who had been invited for the event hearing their names called and going out to meet their new teams. After the 49ers at the top, teams drafted for need, and Rodgers wasn't the need.

When the Packers finally took Rodgers at No. 24 -- four and a half hours and perhaps $30 million removed from that No. 1 pick -- the fans at the Javits Center, on Manhattan's West Side, gave him a long, loud ovation. They were perhaps more relieved than anything. Rodgers said something that day about how God had been teaching him humility and patience. Both were in play.

We see now what a beautiful pathway was cleared. One can see that, while Smith was thrown to the wolves by the 49ers in his rookie season behind a dreadful offensive line, Rodgers went to Green Bay and began to learn the pro game while watching Favre play it. While Smith got beaten up and yanked around through six offensive coordinators in six years, Rodgers studied his craft and eventually, though not effortlessly, took over a Packers offense that already was functioning at high levels.

As many people suggested at the time (this space included), Rodgers got the better end of the deal. And so did the Pack.

Rodgers/Favre
Brett Favre was slow to relinquish his starting role, giving Aaron Rodgers a chance to learn the NFL game from the sideline.

The speculation now about how things might have gone had Rodgers been the No. 1 pick, and thus sentenced to life with the dysfunctional 49ers, misses the point. There's no going back. There certainly is no predicting that Smith could have enjoyed the kind of career Rodgers is having, because only Rodgers and the Packers have created that. Rodgers has earned every compliment. No matter what anyone thinks about Favre this minute, the larger truth is that Rodgers had to step in for a legend at Lambeau Field. It was never easy.

In the modern NFL, perhaps only Steve Young, who followed Montana, has pulled off a similar feat. Young's path, too, was substantially less obvious -- life in the USFL; years spent running from defenders in Tampa Bay; a trade to the 49ers that left him walking the sidelines watching Montana play.

In the end, Young's circuitous route led to the Hall of Fame. Rodgers, meanwhile, finds himself one victory from hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. Funny thing about the road to greatness: It's sometimes in the last place you look.

Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His work, "Six Good Innings," was named one of the Top 10 Sports Books of 2009 by Booklist. His next book, "The Voodoo Wave," will be released in August 2011 by W.W. Norton. Reach him at mark@markkreidler.com.

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