In 2005, the NFL draft wasn’t yet the all-consuming traveling roadshow it is today. Even so, the fact that one of the two top quarterbacks in the draft — a lanky kid from Cal named Aaron Rodgers — dropped from the possible first pick all the way down to 24th drew national headlines, including this memorable little soundbite:
Aaron Rodgers returns to San Francisco for the NFC Championship Game on Sunday.— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) January 13, 2020
Flashback to the 2005 Draft when the #49ers passed on Aaron Rodgers and this was his reaction...pic.twitter.com/ODlWQuPYnS
You know what happened next. Rodgers vowed revenge on all the teams that passed on him, and — spoiler— he got it.
But no one knew that at the time. San Francisco, which had the No. 1 pick in the 2005 draft following a dismal 2-14 season, needed a quarterback, and their choice was between Rodgers and the equally touted Alex Smith out of Utah. The 49ers wanted Smith, but Rodgers was willing to give San Francisco a hometown discount on a contract. This was before the rookie wage scale, and SF was in penny-pinching mode. Ultimately the Niners went with Smith.
But what if they hadn’t?
In the tradition of our recent “What if Tom Brady never played for the Patriots?”, let’s make one tiny change. Using mock drafts of the era, let’s just suppose the Niners decide to draft the local boy. How would the NFL have changed? Let’s find out …
With the first pick in the 2005 NFL draft, the San Francisco 49ers select Aaron Rodgers, who’s thrilled to be staying close to home. Rodgers proclaims himself psyched to be joining the Niners, and expresses excitement about working with their offensive coordinator, a fella named Mike McCarthy.
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay drafts Alex Smith at No. 5. Head coach Jon Gruden is ecstatic, proclaiming he’s just nabbed his quarterback for the next decade.
In a tree stand in Mississippi, Brett Favre sits in blissful silence, not a care in his mind.
The 49ers aren’t much better with Rodgers in uniform than they were before he arrived. Tampa Bay takes baby steps forward with Smith under center. Meanwhile, over in Green Bay, Favre’s dominance over the Packers remains unchallenged. The Packers brass knows it’s time to start contingency plans, but they’ve got no one on the horizon.
The Packers prep for the end of the Favre era by drafting Brady Quinn. Favre eats him alive and returns the Packers to the playoffs, where they easily dust the Alex Smith-led Buccaneers. Meanwhile, the 49ers sputter along, still nowhere near a double-digit win season.
Jon Gruden spurns a lucrative offer from ESPN to jump to “Monday Night Football,” instead opting to remain with his consistently playoff-bound Bucs. ESPN, in an effort to inject youth into the broadcast, turns to 33-year-old Lane Kiffin, who chooses TV over a rebuilding job in Tennessee.
Green Bay finally cuts ties with Favre by selecting Mark Sanchez. Without the glare of a 24-7 media spotlight — or 24-7 opportunities for a good time — Sanchez becomes “The Sanchize” for real.
The 49ers have cycled through head coaches, and finally promote from within, bringing Mike McCarthy up from his OC slot. Rodgers says he’s looking forward to the season. His eyes tell a different story.
Rodgers grouses that he’s being stifled under Mike McCarthy. The 49ers again miss the playoffs, and with Smith consistently leading Tampa Bay to the postseason, grumblings resonate across the Bay Area that San Fran went with the wrong QB in 2005.
The 49ers, knowing they have the talent to win big, go all in and hire Jim Harbaugh as coach. The move pays immediate dividends: Harbaugh lights a fire under Rodgers that hadn’t been there before. As a result, Rodgers posts MVP numbers, and Harbaugh leads the team to the NFC championship. But Eli Manning’s Giants knock them out of the playoffs and go on to beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
Early NFL Twitter lights up with “Aaron Rodgers can’t carry Eli Manning’s jock” hot takes. This burns Rodgers, and he vows revenge.
The motivated 49ers and the seething Rodgers blow right past the Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl, unbothered by a little power outage. Rodgers isn’t going anywhere, and his backup, a mobile QB named Colin Kaepernick, stays buried on the bench.
While calling a meaningless Week 13 Raiders-Chargers Monday Night Football game, Kiffin goes off on a bizarre second-quarter rant about the Raiders and Al Davis that lasts for an entire series. Kiffin is fired at halftime and ejected from the stadium. After the season, the Monday Night Football franchise turns to a just-fired coach: ex-Eagle Andy Reid. He instantly draws praise from the sports media establishment for his uncanny ability to properly diagnose late-game clock-management mishaps.
Harbaugh, now in charge of a budding dynasty, spurns Michigan’s offer to return to the sidelines at his alma mater. The Wolverines thus turn to another Michigan man, LSU’s Les Miles, who will bring new life and new muscle to the Michigan program. Under Miles, Michigan will stiff-arm Ohio State, win two national titles, and join Alabama and Clemson as perennial entrants in the College Football Playoff.
Tampa Bay, still rolling with Alex Smith, has no need (or opportunity) to select Jameis Winston in the NFL draft. Winston instead goes to Jacksonville … where he throws touchdowns and interceptions in equal measure, and the team will spend the next five seasons trying to decide whether to keep him or not.
In the locker room prior to Super Bowl LI in Houston, a Fox promo highlights Danica Patrick’s impending start in the Daytona 500. Rodgers, whose 49ers are preparing to face the New England Patriots, glances for a minute at the TV, then refocuses on the game plan. The 49ers go on to throttle the Patriots for their fourth Super Bowl in six seasons.
The Kansas City Chiefs select Patrick Mahomes in the NFL draft. But without Alex Smith to serve as a bridge quarterback, and without Andy Reid to scheme a proper deployment of a rookie quarterback, Mahomes starts too early and gets obliterated in his first season, leading KC fans to gripe that Mahomes is a bust and headed nowhere.
Kyle Shanahan leaves Atlanta and heads for one of the few open jobs: Jacksonville, where he figures out how to harness Jameis Winston’s talents. The Jaguars dismantle the Patriots in the playoffs, and Tom Brady decides that’s as good a sign as any to hang it up.
The Harbaugh-Rodgers dynasty long ago eclipsed Belichick-Brady as the preeminent coach-QB duo in the NFL, but the cracks are starting to show. They face a resurgent Packers offense, led by a QB the Packers gambled on in the 2017 draft, fella named Deshaun Watson, in the divisional playoffs. Just before the game, Rodgers trots onto snow-covered Lambeau Field and thanks heaven he didn’t have to play his career in this kind of weather.
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