I’ve had a lot time recently to think about things, many things. That tends to happen when you break your femur, have surgery and are holed up in a rehab facility like I have been for the past three weeks. I’m not complaining; it’s times like these — quiet, reflective times — when you learn about yourself and those closest to you.
I’ve received so many get-well messages from people spread out all over the country. Charlotte Jones-Anderson of the Cowboys called, so did David Baker from the Pro Football Hall of Fame and several of my fellow gold jacket recipients in Canton.
When Roger Goodell called the other day, the commissioner and I talked about a lot of things regarding the great game he oversees, including how the league and its players were able to pull off another great season in the middle of a pandemic.
I shared with him something I had been thinking about as I watched Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers climb to the top of the NFC this season and then easily beat a very good Los Angeles Rams team last week in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.
We discussed a topic that has befuddled me for some time now: How Rodgers fell in the 2005 NFL Draft. I mean, I know how it happened — no one had a better view of what was going on behind the scenes than I did. I guess it’s the why that I still struggle with, even knowing how it all went down.
I know the story behind Rodgers’ infamous green room embarrassment, but I haven’t shared it widely until now. It seems appropriate on the eve of an NFC Championship Game that pits Rodgers against Tom Brady — two of the biggest draft mysteries in the history of the NFL. As someone who recruited players and brought them to the draft for more than two decades, I had a bird’s eye view of the 24 hours that led up to the drama that unfurled in the Javits Center in New York City on April 23, 2005.
I actually saw it coming, like the headlights of a locomotive going at top speed with no brakes. I even tried stopping it, but it was a runaway destined to crash.
The NFL, under Goodell’s watch, has done a marvelous job moving the draft around to different cities each year. The ones in Chicago, Philadelphia and Nashville, as well as the one here in my hometown of Dallas, were all special in their own ways. But New York City was unique and provided an easy selling point for players I was recruiting.
In 2005, we only invited six to the draft: Two quarterbacks (Rodgers and Utah’s Alex Smith), two running backs (Auburn’s Ronnie Brown and the late Cedric Benson from Texas), one wide receiver (Braylon Edwards from Michigan) and one defensive player (CB Antrel Rolle from Miami). By recent standards, a very small group.
My job as a recruiter was to call teams and find out who they were going to select in the first round, then try to piece it all together like a mock draft. They trusted me to keep the information confidential, and I did. It allowed me to do my job of getting the top players to New York for a week of draft festivities. It was a promotional tool, and it worked. News outlets from around the country followed the players’ every move around the city, taking photographs and video of them in famous parts of the city to chronicle their week in the Big Apple.
About 10 days out from the beginning of draft week, I got a commitment from Smith, who I had learned was San Francisco’s target with the top overall pick. That information was leaking out everywhere. I knew it, Smith knew it and so did Rodgers, who was non-committal in accepting his invitation. I understood. No one wants to be second; no one wants to risk being the last man standing.
But Rodgers finally agreed. Some might say blindly, because it was unknown at the time of his acceptance, days before the players were to board a plane for the East Coast, exactly where he would go. I knew where the other players would land in the draft with some certainty, but because of a confluence of factors, Rodgers was always the wild card.
Miami held the second pick and needed a quarterback, with A.J. Feeley (8 starts), Jay Fiedler (7) and Sage Rosenfels (1) all taking turns starting for the Dolphins in 2004. But there was a new sheriff in Miami, and his name was Nick Saban, who came from the college ranks with no previous decision-making powers in the little time he was in the NFL, a reason he was seen as unpredictable in this draft by most observers.
Fortunately for me, Coach Saban and I go way back. I got to know him when he was the defensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns under Bill Belichick, a year after leading Toledo to a 9-2 record in his first head-coaching job. I recommended him to Michigan State in 1995 and again five years later to LSU.
Anyway, Saban and I spent a lot of time together on the road at pro days after he was hired by the Dolphins. He picked my brain on prospects, and I learned his leanings in the draft. In mid-March of that year, we found ourselves together in four different cities in four days. Two of the stops were on back-to-back days in Salt Lake City and Berkeley, home of the Cal Golden Bears.
Smith’s Wednesday workout at Utah was outstanding. He showed off an athleticism that, in my mind — and, more importantly I believe, in Saban’s mind — separated him from Rodgers, who followed Smith the next day with an impressive pro day of his own at Cal. The two campuses are separated by 725 miles, but the difference between Smith and Rodgers was razor thin.
Saban and I had dinner with Smith and his parents the night of his workout. It was becoming clear to me that the new Dolphins coach had his mind already made up about what to do with his team’s first pick.
Although he never told me directly, I believe he wanted a quarterback in the draft, and in his final evaluation, it was Smith and Smith only. It seemed he liked Rodgers, but he loved Smith. He would talk to me about the days of trying to recruit Reggie Bush to LSU and seeing a lot of Smith at Helix High in San Diego, where the two played on the same team. He was very familiar with Smith, and in Saban’s case, I believe, familiarity bred contentment.
Rodgers was more of a wild card for not only Saban but the rest of the NFL. Why did no one recruit the Chico, California, quarterback out of high school? Why did he end up at Butte Community College? And what was up with that high-ball grip he was taught at Cal by coach Jeff Tedford? Speaking of Tedford, why did so many of his previous college star quarterbacks (Akili Smith, Joey Harrington, Kyle Boller) have less-than-stellar careers in the NFL? Would Rodgers be next in line?
These were all questions Saban considered when he decided if Smith was not there at No. 2, he’d pass on Rodgers and take a running back, or trade down. The morning of the draft, he called me around 7 from his car phone and asked which running back I would take first. We both agreed that Ronnie Brown was the guy.
With Brown all but certain to go to the Dolphins, something I was sure of a few weeks before Saban’s final call to me the morning of the draft, I was starting to see what could happen. A slide by Rodgers was inevitable; just how far was the question. At this point, I knew of teams that actually preferred Auburn’s Jason Campbell over Rodgers, so I wasn’t even sure if Rodgers would be the second quarterback taken (or third, considering uber-athletic Arkansas QB Matt Jones was being bandied about as a first-round tight end conversion).
I was piecing every bit of information together that I could, and if teams were being honest with me — and they always had been — I knew the first 23 picks, and none of them included Rodgers. Pick No. 24 was held by the Packers, who, of course, had Brett Favre on their roster.
At 5:30 p.m. Friday, less than 24 hours before the start of the draft and after returning from a long day with the players touring landmarks in New York City, I put in a call to John Dorsey, my trusted friend who was Green Bay’s director of college scouting at the time. I told Dorsey that Rodgers would be available and to be ready to pounce if the late Ted Thompson, the Packers’ first-year GM at the time, was willing to put his neck on the line and pull the trigger on a quarterback. Dorsey assured me that if Rodgers was still there, the Packers were going to take him.
Earlier that Friday, I wondered how I could gently tell Rodgers about his draft fate. I remember how oblivious he seemed to the reality while touring the city on the bus, taking pictures of the other five players with his flip phone, generally having a good time.
I had made a dinner reservation at the world-famous Carmine’s for myself, and in a quiet moment on the bus, I invited Rodgers to tag along. Just he and I in a private booth. He happily accepted.
(Seven years earlier I did the same thing with Ryan Leaf, whose mother called me Friday morning before the 1998 draft and asked if I had any pull to make reservations at Carmine’s that same night for a group of, wait for it … 38 people. You must remember: Getting a reservation at Carmine’s for a Friday night is like trying to get into the Pentagon. Trying to get 38 people less than 12 hours from the reservation on a Friday night of the draft? Let’s just say there might only be a handful of us who could pull that off. I did, and Carmine’s management often reminds me that it is still a record for their NYC restaurant. Now, back to the story …)
Rodgers and I arrived at 7 p.m. We sat down, and I walked him through the situation.
“Look,” I began. “The Packers say they are going to take you with the 24th pick. I know this must come as a great disappointment, and I would understand if you decided to not show up.”
“Mr. Brandt,” Rodgers replied, “my parents will be here in the morning and they want to attend. And besides, I want to be here. It was my choice and I will honor my acceptance.”
Looking back, I’m not so sure Rodgers trusted me fully. And I don’t blame him. He was being fed all kinds of information, and mine was just another piece to add to the large pile. At one point, someone in the 49ers organization told him he would be their pick. Two days before the draft, Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden called Rodgers and intimated that if he was still around at Pick No. 5, he would be the Buccaneers’ choice.
It seemed preposterous that a quarterback of Rodgers’ talents could slide to the 24th spot in a draft loaded with quarterback-needy teams. By my count, of the 23 clubs ahead of the Packers, all but maybe one or two had a much better case to make for taking Rodgers than Green Bay did.
But like with most things related to the draft, it’s not that simple. It was complicated even further by the era in which this particular draft took place: There was no rookie wage scale (could teams afford to pay a first-round quarterback and a highly paid veteran while staying under the cap?), and a great deal of importance was being placed on running backs (three of the first five picks in 2005 played the position). Plus, add in all the questions surrounding Rodgers and his background, and suddenly the unexplainable seems explainable.
Still, it all seemed improbable on the day of the draft. I didn’t see a lot of Rodgers before he and his small entourage, including his agent and parents, entered the green room at the Javits Center. But he was visibly nervous, like all players are knowing the biggest moment of their young life is about to happen.
Then it started. Smith went to San Francisco, Brown went to Miami, Edwards to Cleveland, Benson to Chicago and running back Cadillac Williams to Tampa Bay, quickly leaving Rolle and Rodgers as the only ones left in the green room. Three picks later, Rolle was taken by Arizona.
The Cheese stood alone.
It was as uncomfortable as I ever felt for anyone. And I felt guilty that I had played a role in putting Rodgers through the torture of waiting for more than four hours, with national TV cameras focused in on every facial grimace, and with the cleaning crew having cleared every other table but his, before his name was called.
I remember going over to his table and trying to console him with examples of players who had to wait on draft day, only to reach the greatest heights in the NFL: Warren Sapp, Randy Moss, Thurman Thomas, Dan Marino. I’m not sure it registered. I think he was too caught up in his thoughts of payback.
We know how this one turned out. The Packers took him at No. 24, and now, Rodgers is re-writing NFL history. It was difficult for all of us, especially Rodgers and his family, to witness at the time, but from a humbling and motivational standpoint, it probably was the best thing that could have happened to him.
Like Paul Tagliabue told Rodgers when newly drafted quarterback crossed the Javits Center stage to shake the commissioner’s hand: “Good things come to those who wait.”
In Rodgers’ case, I would amend that to the greatest things. And after Sunday, maybe even Super.
Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter.
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