Years removed from 2005 NFL draft, Aaron Rodgers and Alex Smith have a mutual admiration

September 23, 2018

GREEN BAY — Aaron Rodgers can see the resemblance. But he still can’t believe how many people get them confused.

Obviously, he understands why he and Alex Smith will always be inextricably linked by their fates in the 2005 NFL draft — Smith going No. 1 overall to the San Francisco 49ers; Rodgers tumbling to the Green Bay Packers at No. 24. Now 34 years old and in their 14th NFL seasons, they’ll face each other for the fourth time today.

But it’s not like they’re separated-at-birth lookalikes here. Handsome? Yep. Likely to have some stubble on their mugs? Sure. But they’re not twins. And yet, whenever they’re in the same place — especially when they play in golf tournaments together, such as the Pebble Beach Pro-Am or the American Century Championship in Lake Tahoe — confusion reigns.

“It happens all the time,” Rodgers said this week as he prepared for today’s game against the Washington Redskins — Smith’s new team — at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland. “I mean, I think we look kind of alike, but he’s skinnier, and taller.

“It really happens in the parking lots. Like when we’re like (10 yards) away from each other, and someone will say (to me), ‘Alex! Alex! Alex!’ And I’ll be like, ‘He’s right over there, walking!’ Or a fan will have a Niners shirt, ‘Alex! Alex!’ And the same thing to him. It’s happened for years.”

Another thing that’s happened for years? The assumption that the 49ers made one of the biggest mistakes in NFL draft history when they took Smith instead of Rodgers, the Northern California native and University of California quarterback who grew up rooting for Joe Montana and Steve Young and swore he was going to be the top pick.

That take, of course, is accurate. Rodgers, with two NFL MVP awards, a Super Bowl XLV title and a Super Bowl MVP to his name, will be a Pro Football Hall of Famer five years after he calls it a career. Then-49ers coach Mike Nolan, who made the final decision on draft day, admitted his mistake on KNBR radio in the Bay Area last year.

“At the time, in the long term, we thought that Alex was going to be the better quarterback. Obviously, we were wrong,” Nolan said. “One of them, Aaron Rodgers is going to the Hall of Fame, (while) Alex Smith is a very solid, capable, good quarterback. So, we didn’t have a bad choice, but there’s always one better than the other. We missed the mark. We should have taken Aaron, no question.”

But much like their similar appearances, perhaps — if circumstances had been different — Rodgers’ and Smith’s careers would also bear a resemblance, just as their 5 o’clock shadowed faces do.

Constant upheaval

In his first eight seasons with the 49ers, Smith played for seven offensive coordinators — including Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who was Nolan’s offensive coordinator in 2005 — and three head coaches. The 49ers went 39-37-1 (including playoffs) in games Smith started, and in 2012, he lost his starting job to Colin Kaepernick and was traded after the season to the Kansas City Chiefs.

In five years in Kansas City, Smith went to three Pro Bowls, compiled a 94.8 passer rating and led the Chiefs to a 51-30 record (including playoffs) while leading them to the postseason four times. He even spent last season mentoring the Chiefs’ quarterback-of-the-future, first-round pick Patrick Mahomes, before being traded to the Redskins, who lost Kirk Cousins in free agency.

For Redskins coach Jay Gruden, Smith has been exactly what he’d hoped for.

“It’s been great. He’s a solid guy. He’s picked up everything easily,” Gruden said, adding that Smith and Rodgers share the ability to extend plays, while admitting that Rodgers is “more explosive” than Smith in that regard. “For the most part, I feel like he’s comfortable. Last week, we just had some unfortunate plays on third down and a couple drops, a missed route run and things of that nature that really hurt you when you’re talking about a timing-based offense. Overall, I think he’s come along well. We’re going to continue to get a feel for what he’s good at and what he likes as the season goes on, week to week.”

For his part, Rodgers has always believed he would have forged the same career he’s had in Green Bay had he gone to the 49ers but it’s hard to ignore the fact that while Rodgers was serving a three-year apprenticeship on the bench behind Brett Favre, Smith was starting 30 games. (The 49ers went 11-19 in those games.) The year Rodgers finally became the Packers’ starter — 2008 — Smith missed the entire year with a shoulder injury.

“I was always amazed just to watch (Smith) continue to have success in the National Football League. I think what he’s dealt with as far as the amount of change just speaks volumes about him as a football player and a person,” McCarthy said. “He’s definitely an excellent addition to the Washington Redskins and he’s going to be a big challenge for our defense.’’

‘A pretty good career’

Clay Matthews didn’t even wait for the sentence to end. Asked about Smith at midweek, Matthews couldn’t wait when told Smith has actually put together ...

“… a pretty good career, huh? Yeah, I know,” Matthews interrupted. “Whenever you’re a high pick in the NFL, there’s always high expectations that come along with that — especially as a quarterback. But the guy’s still got it. I remember playing him here with the Chiefs, I was going in for an easy sack and the guy did a spin move on me and I was like, ‘What?’ He’s definitely got some game left to him.

“Obviously having gone from San Fran, and what happened there, to Kansas City — (both those teams) bringing in new quarterbacks, you think maybe his time’s up. But the guy can still play. And he continues to prove it.”

No one knows that better than Rodgers. He and Smith have been “buddies” (Rodgers’ word) for years, and he enjoys watching Smith play — and crossing paths with him from time to time. Rarely, if ever, does the 2005 NFL draft come up anymore.

“We’re both pretty old now. I don’t think about me and him at 20, 21 years old. I think about the other times I see him,” Rodgers said. “He’s a great guy. We’ve developed a friendship over the years and I’ve always enjoyed watching his career and his success. What he had to deal with early on with not a great supporting cast around him, a number of moving pieces and coaching staff, offensive coordinator stuff, I think it’s phenomenal (that he’s overcome it). Any other player I think in that situation, you lose confidence and you’re out of the league in four or five years.

“He’s been to a few more teams than me, but he’s put up numbers everywhere he’s (gone), he’s handled it with incredible class along the way — some tough situations, and some weird situations. And I’m just really proud of him as a friend as a fellow 2005 draftee.”

And the feeling is mutual.

“You know, he’s a decent player,” Smith said with a laugh. “He and I (have) been around each other a lot of time now, always linked, pretty good buddies. Certainly, (we) follow each other’s career from afar. Usually get to connect in the offseason here or there a couple times with random things.

“We’re obviously pretty far down the line at this point, still rolling and having fun with it. Obviously, (it’s) good to see him out there playing. He’s a special player, fun to watch. I think as quarterbacks we always watch one another, analyze one another. Certainly, he’s a unique guy the way he plays quarterback. I know he’s fun to watch from a peer’s perspective.”

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