Rodgers/Smith; J. T. O'Sullivan; Mike Nolan; Darren McFadden
by Glenn Dickey
Sep 17, 2008

THREE YEARS ago, the big debate was whether the 49ers would select Alex Smith or Aaron Rodgers with the first pick in the draft. They selected Smith, Rodgers fell to Green Bay as the 22nd pick and the two quarterbacks have taken much different paths since.

Smith never really had a chance. He had very little experience, one year in high school, two in college in a spread formation, and he came to a team with a weak offensive line and inadequate receivers. He’s had only one good season in three, his second, when he had Norv Turner as offensive coordinator. In his third season, he was injured and required shoulder surgery, and he’s out for this season, too.

Rodgers has spent most of his first three seasons watching Brett Favre. Even when he was finally named the starting quarterback, after Favre’s tearful “retirement” speech, he was haunted by the Packer legend when Favre decided to come back. The Packers handled the storm by declaring that Rodgers was still their quarterback and trading Favre to the New York Jets.

It’s not easy following a legend. Just ask Steve Young, who had a difficult time winning over 49er fans who were dismayed by the departure of Joe Montana, though Young went on to put together his own Hall of Fame career.

Rodgers could have succumbed to the pressure but he didn’t, playing very well in the Packers’ first two victories. That doesn’t surprise anybody who watched him at Cal, where he elevated himself into the discussion about the top Cal quarterbacks of all time in his two seasons. I’d rate him in a tie with Joe Roth, just behind Craig Morton and Steve Bartkowski.

He does not have as strong an arm as Favre, but it’s strong enough to throw deep and he’s extremely accurate – 16-for-20 in his first start for the Packers. For some reason, NFL scouts doubted his ability to throw deep but he convinced them he could in pre-draft workouts in 2005.

Playing quarterback is much more than just throwing the ball, of course. Rodgers’ intelligence also comes in to play, which is likewise no surprise to those who watched him at Cal. His intelligence was the reason he landed there. He was not recruited out of high school, so he went to Butte JC, where Cal coach Jeff Tedford saw him.

Usually, JC transfers have to either play two years at the school or sit out their first transfer year at a four-year college, a rule put in to discourage high school players who don’t have good academic resumes from side-stepping the admission requirements at four-year colleges with one year in JC. But Tedford, who’s no dummy, either, researched Rodgers’ background and learned that his SAT scores were high enough for him to be admitted to Cal as a freshman. So, Cal was able to get an NCAA waiver to let Rodgers play as a sophomore.

Once in school, he learned the Cal offense very quickly; Tedford said he had never had a quarterback who picked it up as fast. In early season, he moved past Reggie Robertson to become the Bears’ starter.

He’s also always had great confidence in his ability, a confidence which some NFL teams, including the 49ers, translated as cocky. As for me, I don’t want a humble quarterback. I want a quarterback who knows he’s good and goes out to prove it.

Talking to Rodgers, I always had the feeling that he just knew he was going to be a great quarterback. He had a maturity beyond his years, and that maturity is what’s enabled him to handle the emotional situation in Green Bay.

So, why wasn’t he taken by the 49ers? The story around the NFL has always been that Mike Nolan thought he could finesse the situation, drafting Smith, trading him to Tampa Bay (drafting No. 5) for an extra draft pick, and then taking Rodgers with the Bucs’ pick. To do that, teams have to talk before the draft and make that arrangement, which Nolan failed to do. On draft day, the Bucs didn’t follow his script, so he had to take Smith. It was the first indication that Nolan, for all his arrogance, doesn’t know what he’s doing.

How much difference would it have made to the 49ers if they’d drafted Rodgers instead? Not enough. Rodgers was certainly better prepared than Smith to be an NFL quarterback, but he would still have struggled with a bad team.

And, though I wanted the Niners to take Rodgers, I’m happy for him now because he’s in a much better place. He’ll probably take the Packers to the playoffs, while the 49ers are still struggling under Nolan.

J. T. O’SULLIVAN: On a fourth quarter play on which 49er quarterback J. T. O’Sullivan was sacked in Sunday’s game, TV commentator “Moose” Johnstone said, “He’s got to learn to throw the ball away. He can’t take a sack here.” Of course, Johnstone was forgetting previous plays on which O’Sullivan escaped a blitzer and made plays, either throwing or running.

Later in the game, when O’Sullivan made another of those plays, Johnstone finally admitted, “I’ve never seen a quarterback play this way in this system. It works for him.”

O’Sullivan is indeed a different quarterback. Some have compared him to Jeff Garcia, but he’s got a stronger arm. What he shares with Garcia is a vision of the whole field and an ability to make plays when the original play has broken down.

Of course, that depends on his receivers scrambling, too, as they have to break their patterns and find an open spot. That’s where it helps to have a veteran like Isaac Bruce. Those who were ready to bury Bruce after the 49ers’ first game had to do some serious re-evaluation after the win over Seattle, as Bruce caught four passes for 153 yards, including one for 63. He can still go deep, and he’s cunning, too. One of his veteran tricks: He keeps his hands down so he doesn’t tip off the defensive back that the ball is coming, and then puts his hands up at the last moment to catch it.

49ER DEFENSE: Re-establishing his idiot credentials, Mike Nolan used a five defensive back alignment against Seattle, even though the Seahawks top receivers were all injured. Predictably, they got zero pressure on quarterback Matt Hasselback. Fluke plays, like the tipped pass that middle linebacker Patrick Willis returned for an 86-yard touchdown, made the defense look good, but giving up an average of five yards a carry didn’t.

Unless the 49ers discover a pass rush, their chances of winning even the weak NL West are slim and none, and slim isn’t leading.

KANSAS CITY WOES: Before anybody gets too excited about the Raiders beating the Chiefs in Kansas City, remember that they will not face another offense that weak until they meet the Chiefs again, and even with that, they were only up by 6-0 at halftime.

The real shock was Larry Johnson, who was one of the league’s premier running backs before he was injured last season. Johnson won’t be 29 until November, but running backs can wear out quickly in the NFL. Johnson doesn’t seem to have much left in the tank.

The Raiders, meanwhile, seem to have the next great NFL running back in Darren McFadden. Even though Justin Fargas had a very good year last season, McFadden should be the starter. Fargas is a good NFL back, but McFadden is much better. The Raiders’ offense got a jump start when Fargas was injured and McFadden came in. There’s a lesson there.

E-MAILS: I like to answer e-mails but I’m still running into e-mail boxes which are already full. If you want to hear from me, clean out your e-mail boxes.

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