What If Rodgers Had Stayed?
Still, there are always the “what ifs.” I have a couple to discuss, one which I’m sure every Cal supporter has considered, another that has probably been forgotten.
The obvious one: What if Aaron Rodgers had returned for his senior year, instead of opting for the NFL draft last spring.
I’d never blame a player for turning pro early; there’s just too much money out there now. If a player returns for his senior year, there is always the possibility of an injury which could have a serious impact on his football and financial career.
In Rodgers case, he was looking at a chance to be possibly the first player picked in the draft – and he would have been if Mike Nolan hadn’t thought he could play it cute by drafting Alex Smith, trading him to pick up an extra pick and then selecting Rodgers, anyway. When Nolan couldn’t make that trade, Rodgers slipped all the way to Green Bay’s pick.
If Rodgers had returned, it would have given coach Jeff Tedford a chance to groom both Nate Longshore and Joe Ayoob as his successor for 2006. As it was, Longshore started the first game but his season ended with an injury. Ayoob came on for him and, though it seemed for a time that he was growing into the role, his confidence faltered and his play suffered.
Many readers have questioned my support of Ayoob, but on questions like this, I’ve found that it’s wise to listen to men who know more about the subject than I do. Both Tedford and Troy Taylor, a quarterback and quarterback coach for Cal and now the analyst on radio broadcasts, think Ayoob has the potential to be a good quarterback. There’s a difference between a quarterback whose mechanics are screwed up but has the ability, as was true of Kyle Boller before Tedford came to Cal, and a quarterback who simply lacks the ability; Justin Vedder is the best recent example. Ayoob is much more like Boller than Vedder.
What would it have meant to the Bears if Rodgers had returned? Let’s look at the Cal losses:
--UCLA. Ayoob had a decent game, 18 of 35 for 215 yards with two touchdowns, and the Bears scored 40 points. Defense and special teams lost this game. Still, it’s quite possible that Rodgers would have had a better game and the offense could have controlled the game. The Bears had four field goals in the game. If they’d scored touchdowns on two of those drives, the Bruins wouldn’t have been able to catch them.
--Oregon State. Everybody played horribly in this game, but there’s little question that, with Rodgers, the Bears would have been able to overcome the problems elsewhere to beat a below-average Pac-10 team at home.
--Oregon. There was an offensive breakdown everywhere. Ayoob overthrew receivers deep and his receivers dropped many catchable balls. Having Rodgers wouldn’t have made a difference with the receivers but, even in the rain, I think he would have hit at least one of those deep passes which, in a game that went into overtime, would have been enough to win.
--USC. Forget it. Rodgers would have made it more interesting but the Trojans would have won the game.
At a minimum, then, the Bears would have won at least one more game, which would have put them at 8-3 and in a better bowl. If they’d beaten either UCLA or Oregon, they’d have been at 9-2 and probably playing in the Sun Bowl. If they’d won both of those games, they’d be at 10-1 and probably in a BCS bowl, because their only loss would have been to the team which has led the polls all season.
THE SECOND QUESTION: What if Steve Mariucci had stayed on as Cal head coach.
Mariucci replaced Keith Gilbertson before the 1996 season but coached only one year. His team went 6-5 in the regular season and then lost to Navy in the Aloha Bowl in Hawaii.
Those who knew Mariucci knew that the Cal job was just a stepping stone for him because his goal was to become an NFL head coach. Nobody could have expected that his opportunity would have come so soon, but Carmen Policy, then the president of the 49ers, hired him to replace George Seifert for the 1997 season.
That ushered in one of the worst periods in Cal football history. Athletic director John Kasser promoted Tom Holmoe, who had been the defensive coordinator for one of the very worst defenses in the country, the primary reason the Bears had lost six of their last seven that season. Kasser made his decision early because he didn’t want Artie Gigantino, who had significant alumni support. Amazingly, Kasser later even extended Holmoe’s contract, so he lasted five progressively bad seasons, 1-10 in his final season.
What would it have been like if Mariucci had stayed? I have a different opinion now than I had at the time.
My original impression was that Mariucci was a very good coach who would become one of the best in the NFL. He did a good job with the 49ers for the most part, though when Steve Young went down with a concussion that ended his career early in the 1999 season, Mariucci couldn’t stop the bleeding, and the 49ers ended at 4-12.
John York fired Mariucci after the 2002 season in a bizarre move. General manager Terry Donahue didn’t know anything about NFL assistants, so he hired a college coach he knew well, Dennis Erickson, which did not turn out well for the 49ers.
Mariucci went to Detroit, but that ended this week with his firing. Now that we have more information about him, it’s become clear that his main talent is dealing with the media, that he isn’t very good at planning strategy and can’t deal with adversity – the loss of Young with the 49ers, the failures of young quarterback Joey Harrington with the Lions.
If he’d stayed at Cal, I’m sure he would have been loved by the media and the alumni. He would have been charming at the Grid Club meetings (Gilby used to spend a good part of the time at the bar by himself.)
He would have been a good recruiter, and his teams would certainly have been better than Holmoe’s, probably around 7-4, 6-5. Considering the conspicuous lack of success in Cal football history, that would have kept alumni happy.
Which means that the situation which made it possible for Cal to sign Tedford would not have existed.
THAT, FINALLY, is the most important fact: that the Bears have Tedford.
Because Mariucci left for the pros, because Bruce Snyder jumped (or, more accurately, was pushed by Bob Bockrath) to Arizona State, Cal supporters have feared that Tedford would also leave. But he’s happy here, and the athletic and academic administrations are moving to get him the improved facilties which he has said are a key to his staying. He’s doing what the good college coaches do, building the foundation of a program which can be self-sustaining, with top preps eager to come to Berkeley.
The fact that Rodgers left early, all the what-ifs about the season, pale in significance when placed against the Tedford factor. Oh, and don't forget: We’ve won the Big Game four years in a row.
HOLIDAY TRAVEL: With the holiday season on us, I hope those of you traveling from the Oakland or Portland airports will utilize the services of my advertiser, Douglas Parking. The ad is to the right of my column.
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