How the Raiders whiffed on drafting Rodgers
The Bay Area will always know Aaron Rodgers as the Cal quarterback passed over by the 49ers for Alex Smith. Lesser discussed about that draft day of 2005: The NFL team 11 miles down the road from Berkeley whiffed just as badly on its own Rodgers opportunity.
The Raiders had scouted Rodgers extensively, but never brought him in to visit their Alameda facility. He had been to the Coliseum once, as a high school quarterback, to watch a game against the Chargers.
After the 49ers took Smith of Utah at No. 1, then came Rodgers’ interminable green room wait America got to watch on ESPN. When the Raiders traded with Seattle to move from No. 26 to No. 23, Rodgers had a thought.
“For a second, I was looking at my phone and wondering if it was going to ring at the 23rd pick,” he said this week by conference call. “But it never did.”
Instead, the Raiders selected speedy Nebraska cornerback Fabian Washington, the Green Bay Packers took Rodgers at No. 24 and the course of NFL quarterbacking history was changed forever.
The Packers couldn’t be certain of it yet, but they’d found the rare quarterback capable of replacing a legend. Rodgers, in his 11th season, has done for Green Bay what Steve Young did for the 49ers after trading Joe Montana.
The Chico, Calif., native leads the Packers (9-4) against the Raiders Sunday at O.co Coliseum in a career likely headed for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Washington played six inglorious seasons — three for the Raiders and three for the Baltimore Ravens — and was out of football.
What followed that Raiders draft: A revolving door at quarterback that featured 15 different starters in nine years.
Rodgers remembers Raiders owner Al Davis being at the starting line of the 40-yard dash at the combine. “That’s about the only time I saw him,” he said.
As it turned out, unless Rodgers shaved about five tenths of a second off his time or figured out a way to grow from 6-foot-2 to 6-foot-5, he wasn’t going to merit first-round consideration by Davis.
At a press conference in 2011 following the hiring of Hue Jackson, Davis said of Rodgers at the post-conference gathering at his table, “Sure, I regret not drafting him … he’s a good player.”
The media opportunity ended shortly afterward, with Davis never elaborating on the subject before his death less than a year later. But Davis, according to former Raiders CEO and CBS analyst Amy Trask, had his regrets.
“I enjoyed several very interesting conversations with Al about our missed opportunity,” Trask said. “As was most often the case, Al peppered his observations with expletives and he very honestly agreed that we missed.”
Davis had plenty of company. In all, 21 teams whiffed on the chance to draft Rodgers, with the 49ers taking the first swing and the Raiders the last. Minnesota (Nos. 7 and 18) and Dallas (Nos. 11 and 20) each had two chances to take Rodgers before he went off the board.
“I find it most intriguing and revealing that the two teams in closest proximity to the stadium in which Aaron played his home games were among those teams,” Trask said. “That underscores something I’ve longed believed: The draft is not a science.”
Bruce Kebric, an NFL scout for more than 40 years, 31 of those with Davis and the Raiders, agreed.
“We can measure everything except heart, and that’s why a fourth-round pick turns out to be a star and a first-round pick doesn’t,” Kebric said.
Davis was long known to favor “measurables,” seeking the biggest, strongest and fastest players. If athletes weren’t overly productive in college, Davis counted on his coaching staff to make sure they produced as professionals.
Rodgers, for consideration as a first-round pick, didn’t measure up in the most basic way possible. At 6-2, he wasn’t tall enough.
The Davis model according to Kebric, was Daryle Lamonica, a 6-foot-4 deep thrower in the late 1960s and early 1970s who was a classic drop back passer nicknamed the “Mad Bomber.”
Kebric, swept out as part of a personnel department restructure by general manager Reggie McKenzie in 2013, said the scouting department ranked Rodgers as the No. 10 player overall and the top player available when the Raiders turn came up. Washington was ranked No.16.
While the Raiders under Davis have been characterized as a dictatorship, Kebric described the draft process as “egalitarian,” with the owner giving all dissenting voices their chance to speak.
Sometimes, Davis agreed or relented. Sometimes, he didn’t.
“He liked Aaron,” Kebric said. “But he kept talking about the height.”
What Davis loved was speed, and Washington, one of the top corners in the Big 12, clocked a combine best 4.29 in the 40-yard dash.
Kebric said the consensus in the draft room among the scouting department was to take Rodgers, whom the Raiders had rated as the only quarterback worthy of the first round — including Smith.
At the time, the Raiders quarterbacks were Kerry Collins and Marques Tuiasosoppo.
Instead, Davis authorized the deal to move up from No. 26 to No. 23, took Washington, and the Packers selected Rodgers at No. 24.
Whatever discomfort came from passing on Rodgers came from the availability of Andrew Walter, a 6-foot-6 quarterback from Arizona State who could throw it deep and had earned a second-round grade from the Raiders.
Walter, in fact, was the Raiders’ third-rated quarterback behind Rodgers and Smith, and before Charlie Frye, Kyle Orton and Jason Campbell. He was selected by the Raiders after Washington and Stanford Routt — the second fastest cornerback in the draft — in the third round.
Coming in to a vertical offense with coach Norv Turner, then to a disastrous single season with Art Shell and offensive coordinator Tom Walsh, and then to a short-passing offense installed by Lane Kiffin, Walter never developed.
Whether Rodgers could have transformed the Raiders will remain a bar room debate.
“We will never know that,” Trask said. “Certainly Green Bay did everything right in terms of best positioning Aaron for success.”
Former Raiders quarterback and Rich Gannon was more direct.
“Had he gone to Oakland, he never would have had the success he’s had. No way,” Gannon said. “As much as I like Aaron, you look at Alex Smith in San Francisco, how did that work out? Six coordinators, different coaches. The same thing would have happened to Aaron in Oakland.”
In the end, Gannon believes the phone staying silent at No. 23 was the best thing that could have happened to Rodgers.
“He got to watch and learn behind Brett Favre,” Gannon said. “He got the chance to be trained by Mike McCarthy, one of the best trainers of quarterbacks in the game. That wouldn’t have happened in Oakland.”
Raiders safety Charles Woodson, who earned a Super Bowl ring with the Packers after the 2010 season and counts Rodgers as a close friend, laughed when he was asked about the Raiders selecting Washington in 2005.
“I told people about that not long ago,” Woodson said. Then he motioned with his thumb upward toward either the front office or the heavens.
“You’ll have to tell them about that, not me,” Woodson said.
Davis, Kebric believes, would understand.
“This is what Al used to say about the draft,” Kebric said. “You work your tail off and you hope you get lucky.”