By Ann Killion
January 18, 2011

If, over the weekend, you heard a god-awful noise coming from the direction of the setting sun, don't worry.

That was just the moaning, teeth-grinding and stomach-churning coming from Northern California, while Aaron Rodgers was ascending to the pantheon of NFL greats.

It's a complicated relationship the top half of California has with Rodgers, one that was expressed on Twitter and Facebook on Saturday night in the wake of Rodgers' near-flawless performance in Green Bay's convincing win over Atlanta. Bursting with pride over a native son. Cursing the fact that he isn't blossoming near home. Packer green with envy, 49ers scarlet with frustration.

Rodgers, of course, is the man the 49ers didn't want. Six years ago, the 49ers chose Alex Smith with the first pick of the 2005 draft. And Rodgers sat. And sat. And sat some more, all alone in the green room, until he was finally selected by the Green Bay Packers with the 24th pick.

The sense then was that, despite the agonizing wait, the local boy got the better deal, going to an established franchise to wait his turn behind a legend.

The sense now? It was an even better deal than we thought at the time. Rodgers' emerging greatness is a direct result of not being a 49er.

The knee-jerk reaction is that the 49ers fate was sealed that day. If they had picked Rodgers over Smith everything would be rainbows and lemon drops now, instead of starting over again with their third coach and no discernible starting quarterback six years later.

But that's not true. Rodgers is a far superior player to Smith and has a stronger personality. But the 49ers problems were too twisted for one young quarterback to unravel.

Would Rodgers have survived six offensive coordinators? In the 49ers fans alternate universe, Mike McCarthy doesn't depart after the 2005 season, instead replaces a fired Mike Nolan and installs his version of the West Coast offense in San Francisco. Couldn't have happened: Nolan had the keys to the 49ers kingdom for a few more years.

Would Rodgers have survived being forced directly into the starting lineup, rather than wait his turn behind a veteran? Smith -- already handicapped by not coming out of a pro-style college offense -- became an immediate starter, behind a terrible offensive line. Rodgers, despite the passion play that ensued with Brett Favre, benefited from sitting. And, it must be noted, was fortunate that the legend he replaced quickly wore out his welcome around the league so that Packers fans weren't pining for Favre and, instead, smartly accepted Rodgers.

Would Rodgers have survived two head coaches, Nolan and Mike Singletary, who acted as though a quarterback was a foreign visitor they couldn't communicate with and barely tolerated? Not likely. A more plausible scenario would be that Rodgers would have been vocal about the problems with the defensive mindset and increasingly Neanderthal style of football. Rodgers probably wouldn't have renegotiated his contract as Smith did in 2009, to stay with the dysfunctional team and may have been cut, as Smith almost was.

So, no, that alternate universe could never have existed.

But it is puzzling to look back on the 49ers choice, one that seems so obviously wrong six years later.

Smith was slightly taller (two inches). Smith's stock rose before the draft, in the inexplicable ways that have to do with agents and "insider" buzz. The younger Smith was deemed more "coachable" and pliant by the 49ers -- he was willing to do a series of oddball tasks like hop on one foot without questioning why Nolan was asking him to do so (note: pliant is not a good quality in quarterbacks). Rodgers, in contrast, was viewed as cocky (note: cocky is a good quality in quarterbacks). Smith's college coach, Urban Meyer, was the next big thing while Rodgers' coach, Jeff Tedford, was best known for grooming quarterbacks like Kyle Boller and Akili Smith, who turned into first-round busts.

But the biggest issue was that Rodgers was right there, right under the 49ers nose, and wanted to play for the 49ers. Somehow that made him less desirable for a new regime determined to do things its own way.

Rodgers had been passed over before. He grew up in Chico, Calif., halfway between the Bay Area and the Oregon border. Overlooked by Division I schools, he went to Butte Community College, where Tedford stumbled upon him while scouting another player.

Rodgers played two years at Cal, and was instrumental in helping to turn the program around. He played in 2003 and 2004, set several school records and only lost to USC in his final season. Rodgers left with one year of eligibility remaining. Tedford has struggled to develop another effective quarterback ever since.

Now Rodgers is on the brink of leading the Packers to a Super Bowl. Green Bay may be in the process of accomplishing something only the 49ers have managed to do in the modern era: replace a legendary quarterback with another legend. Rodgers isn't quite there yet, but he looks the part.

And the 49ers? They've never recovered from their draft day mistake. But picking Smith over Rodgers is just one of many miscues the team is trying to rectify, having hired an offensive mind in Jim Harbaugh to oversee yet another do-over.

It's tempting to say that the fate of two teams was sealed on April 23, 2005. But it's not that simple.

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