ASHBURN, Va. -- They traveled different roads, yet forever will be linked. The San Francisco 49ers once upon a time opted for Alex Smith instead of Aaron Rodgers with the first overall pick, a move that looks far different with 14 years of hindsight.
Smith embarked on a journey in which he played immediately, got benched, got hurt, got traded -- twice -- and yet still remained a starter. Meanwhile, Rodgers sat for three seasons behind Brett Favre, became the starter, won a Super Bowl, recently signed a four-year, $134 million contract and remains in the discussion as the best quarterback in the game.
“At the time there was no comparison because he wasn’t playing, but once he started rolling ... he and I will always be paired together,” Smith said. “Doesn’t help that we look alike.”
Their careers also are a case study in how to train a young quarterback. Smith was 20 years old when drafted in 2005 and started 30 games before he was 23; Rodgers, who is five months older than Smith, didn’t start until 2008, when he was 25. This year’s touted rookie quarterbacks are on different sides of that case study, with two starting (Sam Darnold and Josh Allen) while three others sit (Baker Mayfield, Josh Rosen and Lamar Jackson).
Smith and Rodgers will start against one another for the fourth time Sunday when the Redskins host the Green Bay Packers. Smith started twice vs. Green Bay while with San Francisco and once with Kansas City. Rodgers and the Packers have won two of the three meetings.
But it's not as if Smith feels like there’s anything to worry about in living up to being drafted ahead of Rodgers.
“That’s 14 years down the line,” he said.
Rodgers was a focal point of the 2005 draft because he was considered a possible top overall pick and spent the day sliding down the draft board. Going into that draft, his thought process was that he was destined to go to San Francisco.
“I just thought it was the perfect situation,” Rodgers told ESPN’s Rob Demovsky last year. “California kid who had been a lifelong Niner fan. I thought at the time I was the most NFL-ready quarterback coming out of college because I played in a pro-style system."
But the 49ers liked Smith’s size (6-foot-4) and athleticism.
“Obviously that was a mistake because [Rodgers is] a Hall of Fame quarterback,” Mike Nolan, the 49ers coach at the time, said this summer. “What we saw with Alex, we thought over time he would get better because he was so young, which he has done. That’s what we were banking on. What we missed on is that they [the Niners] didn’t give us enough time to stay around. Had we used his skill set like we should have, then we would have bought ourselves time.
“He was out there with not a great surrounding cast. We were trying to build something from absolutely nothing and that made it doubly hard on Alex.”
But Nolan said one aspect stood out about Rodgers.
“I loved the arrogance and confidence he had,” Nolan said. “You talk to [ex-players] like John Elway, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino. All of them have some cockiness to them. Even Drew Brees, who is as respectful a man as there is, he has tremendous confidence.”
The struggles dented Smith's confidence. The 49ers weren’t good and he had to try to rescue the franchise. Injuries had an impact in three of his first four seasons, and he missed all of 2008 with a broken bone in his shoulder. Smith played for three full-time head coaches and seven offensive coordinators in his first seven seasons. Meanwhile, Rodgers has played for two head coaches in Green Bay.
“I don’t know if there were many pros for me playing early,” Smith said. “I feel like I dug myself a pretty deep hole that rookie year.”
Smith said in the offseason he dealt with some anxiety early in his career, born out of dealing with his situation.
“He was 20 when we drafted him,” Nolan said. “That might have been part of the anxiety. But had we done a better job of utilizing his skill set, he would have had less anxiety because he would have been more comfortable."
Smith was drafted by a team seeking a culture change; Rodgers went to one with a system already in place. Last year, the Chiefs drafted Patrick Mahomes, sat him behind Smith for a year and gave him the job this season. Mahomes leads the NFL with 10 touchdown passes in the first two weeks.
Smith likes the way that teams are embracing the individuality in quarterbacks these days.
“I came in as a spread guy. I had to play most of that year under center,” he said. “I do think now there’s an appreciation for letting some of these guys do what they did well in college. It’s fun to watch young guys come in and use their skill set.”
But there’s no benefit to a what-if game.
"I don’t give that much thought,” he said. “What’s the point? It does me no good dwelling on that. I’m very thankful for where I'm at right now and the road I did have to go down. Certainly, there were tough times, but no, you can’t go back and change it. So, why dwell on it?"