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Mike Nolan: Thought Alex Smith would be better long term, liked Aaron Rodgers’ confidence

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Even with some revisionist history, this is an interesting discussion.

One of the many all-time debates among San Francisco 49ers fans is Alex Smith vs. Aaron Rodgers and the 2005 NFL Draft. The 49ers held the top pick, any by all assessments, it came down to Smith vs. Rodgers. The 49ers passed on Rodgers, and the rest is history.

Former head coach Mike Nolan, who was also in charge of personnel at the time, had the final say on the pick. Since leaving the NFL and taking on media roles, Nolan has had some opportunities to address the decision. Back in April, he talked about how they thought Smith would be the better guy.

On Tuesday, Nolan made an appearance on KNBR, and one of the topics at the end was Smith vs. Rodgers. They asked him why they made the choice they did, and also asked him about the reports Nolan and the team were turned off by Rodgers’ attitude. On the latter point, Nolan said they actually really liked his confidence, and thought it was what you need in a quarterback.

On the former point, Nolan explained the mistake, but also offered up some things he would have done differently with Smith early in his career. There was no reference to the injury in 2007 that in hindsight might mark the beginning of the end of Mike Nolan’s time with the 49ers. There is probably some revisionist history at play here, but it is still some interesting stuff from the 49ers former head coach. You can find the podcast of the interview here.

On Alex Smith vs. Aaron Rodgers:

I will say this, at the time, in the long term, we thought that Alex was going to be the better quarterback. Obviously we were wrong. One of them, Aaron Rodgers is going to the Hall of Fame, and 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 like I said, they’ve both turned out to be capable quarterbacks, one much more than the other. And I just think that’s the facts of it. Obviously right now, Alex is still playing, he’s in the playoffs, been in the playoffs many times.

Now, to credit, one of the things that would have really helped us immensely when we started, is had we used Alex’s entire skillset — meaning, if we had had some zone read in our offense to utilize his legs, which is what he has done since Harbaugh coached him, and also on to Kansas City — we would have used the entire package that Alex has. And I think early on, Alex would have been thought of as a much better quarterback, because that’s what he would have been doing. Plus we would have been innovative in the fact that we had done it. Because it didn’t happen or even come to the NFL until about four years later, five years, six years after we drafted him. You know, it was kind of in the middle of his career that Harbaugh came in there and had him doing that.

So that would have been something we could have used at the time, we would have been on the cutting edge, we could have done a lot of good things. So, the fact that we made the mistake on which one was going to be better in the long run, that’s fine. Alex is still very capable. But if we’d used him as he’s being used today, I think we could have masked a lot of that, and still had a winning program. And who knows who would be the head coach at this time if we’d done a better job with that situation.

On the reports about his interview with Aaron Rodgers and being turned off by his cockiness:

You know what, that’s really an interesting statement. Because I’ve heard that since I was fired. I’ve heard it really in the past few years, primarily since I got on TV. But, I don’t know where that came from or where it was generated, but I’m going to tell you this point blank, this is the honest to God’s truth: The thing that was impressive, most impressive about Aaron was his cockiness, was his arrogance. Because that’s what you look for in a great quarterback.

So I don’t know where that ever started, or where it was generated from, but it’s got legs. And sometimes it’s even sprinting. But if there’s anything further from the truth, that was the thing that continued to have me ask the question, “Guys, are we on this? Now, are we right?” And the thing that kind of swayed me, because I was the decision-maker at the time, was well, Alex is gonna be better in the long run. I was thinking, well, we’re in the first year, I’ve got a five-year deal, I think we’re going to have some time to get it done. And so I went that way. And that was my mistake for kind of trusting in that part of the assessment.

But I assure you guys, as sure as I’m sitting here, what Aaron’s personality was like was the one thing that continued to make me shake my head and say, “Guys, are we on the right path here?” One guy looks like what it looks like. He’s got all the confidence in the world. His workout was actually better than Alex’s. Are we saying the right things here?

And, like I said, it’s unfortunate, because I get asked that time and again. But some things, that’s just the way it is … That’s really what’s driven Aaron to be such a great quarterback. So, those are things you want.