Passing Rodgers or Picking Russell: Which Was the Worse Decision?


What if?

This is probably one of the most common questions in sports, applied to every situation where one change might have butterflied and created a seismic shift.  Or maybe just a shift.  Or maybe it doesn’t butterfly at all, but drastically alters the outcome in a completely self-contained manner.  OK, this is getting out of control.

Jan 12, 2013; San Francisco, CA, USA; Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) passes the ball against the San Francisco 49ers during the second quarter of the NFC divisional round playoff game at Candlestick Park. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

But one of the most popular what-ifs in Bay Area sports regards a semi-local hero who could’ve been a super-local legend: Aaron Rodgers.  As in, what if the San Francisco 49ers had drafted the quarterback out of Cal with the first overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft?  And, here’s the kicker: was them passing over the Golden Bear a worse decision than the Oakland Raiders selecting JaMarcus Russell?

Considering the Niners ended up with Alex Smith, many are quick to jump the gun and label the non-selection as one of the worst decisions in Bay Area sports history.  And I tend to agree that yes, it’s almost always a bad idea when you pass over an All-Pro player, particularly at quarterback.  But, so many teams have done it.  Every team actually passed over Tom Brady, and knowing what they know now, likely would’ve taken him.

That’s the thing about this non-selection; yes, Rodgers is performing now, and it would be great if the Niners had him.  But what about the alternate reality?  Remember, much of Rodgers’ NFL greatness stems from a couple of things: one, his perceived slight by the teams that passed on him, and two, the fire that burned inside him sitting behind Brett Favre.  Both factors caused him to drive and work even harder, putting a chip on his shoulder and, in his mind, forcing him to perform.

So what if San Francisco had taken him first overall?  And instead of sitting behind a veteran for a few years, he was forced to play instantly?  And, because he was the first overall pick, his belief that he was the best quarterback in the draft was instantly vindicated?  And, what he was thrown behind one of the worst offensive lines in the league with regional expectations to carry the team back to the promised land?  There are an infinite number of factors that played into the present situation, and we can never know how it would’ve turned out for Rodgers.  It’s nice to romanticize the possibilities of the quarterback as a 49er, but too many other things could’ve gone wrong.

Courtesy: Off The Record Sports

On the other hand, we saw what happened when the Raiders selected JaMarcus Russell (for the record, they passed on Rodgers too).  We got to live that experience, watching Russell struggle in the NFL and simultaneously cripple the Raiders for years with his enormous contract and all the guaranteed money that came with it.  We know for a fact that the Raiders taking him was a bad decision, because we saw it on the field.  There’s no need to even put up numbers, because anyone who watched him knows how terrible it was at times.  Sure, there were flashes of potential, but overall, I don’t think many would argue that this wasn’t one of the worst busts in NFL history.

And because of this hard evidence, we can say that the Russell pick was far worse for the Raiders than the Rodgers non-pick was for the Niners.