Count Mel Kiper Jr. among those who like to construct parallel universes in their spare time.
In a recent post on ESPN.com, Kiper revisited the 2005 NFL draft. That, of course, was the draft in which the 49ers, holding the first pick and needing a quarterback, selected Alex Smith instead of Aaron Rodgers.
As this is written, Smith has failed the 49ers nearly as badly as they have failed him. Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers are Super Bowl-bound. It's perfect fodder for the what-if parlor trick.
What if the 49ers had drafted Rodgers instead of Smith? "It could have been a perfect marriage," Kiper wrote. Later, in reassessing the 2005 draft with 2011 hindsight, Kiper assigns Rodgers to San Francisco and writes:
"He was right nearby in Berkeley, and he likely changes everything for the 49ers."
We're using Kiper's hypothesis as a jumping-off point here, but he's hardly the first to explore this alternative reality. And he won't be the last, not with the upcoming Super Bowl beginning to blot out the sun.
But here's the problem with the what-if game -- it lacks context. It suggests events that would never have happened. For example: What if Mel Kiper had celebrated his 30th birthday by getting a crew cut? It could have been a perfect marriage.
In the case of the first pick in the 2005 draft, Rodgers ceased to be an option for the 49ers the minute they hired Mike Nolan as head coach. Nolan was no-nonsense, a strong personality who didn't like to be challenged. He met with both Rodgers and Smith before the draft. He caught a whiff of attitude from Rodgers, and that was that.
Smith was chosen based on personality. He is cerebral, introspective, with a distaste for confrontation. Nolan presumed, correctly, that Smith would be low maintenance in meeting rooms and during sideline consultations.
On the field? He was a curious fit, coming from a college program (Utah) that utilized the spread offense almost exclusively. He also was known as a guy who performed better from inside a comfort zone. The 49ers, coming off a 2-14 season, were in no position to promise a comfortable working environment.
Rodgers played in a prostyle offense at Cal. He didn't mind getting his nose bloody. He had no problems speaking his mind. Being drafted by the Packers and forced to practice the fine art of patience behind Brett Favre were the best things that could have happened to him. Just as being thrown into a disorganized state of perpetual chaos was the worst thing that could have happened to Smith.
Switch them out, and what happens? Smith does better in Green Bay than he did in San Francisco, but not as well as Rodgers has done. Rodgers does better with the 49ers than Smith did, but nowhere near as well as he's done with the Packers. Neither, we can safely guess, goes anywhere near a Super Bowl without a paid admission.
If you want to play the what-if game with the 49ers and the 2005 draft, here's where you start: What if the Yorks had hired Mike McCarthy as head coach instead of Nolan?
Nolan came recommended as an accomplished defensive coordinator, having worked in that capacity for 11 seasons and four NFL teams. He had a particular appeal to the 49ers, given that his father had coached the team for eight seasons. So they hired Nolan, who in turn hired McCarthy to run the offense.
But McCarthy also was an accomplished and experienced coordinator. In his five years at New Orleans, the Saints finished in the top half of the league in yards gained every season, finished in the top 10 twice and ranked third in 2002. And this was with Jeff Blake and Aaron Brooks at quarterback.
Was McCarthy ready to be a head coach? The Packers thought so -- after one season on Nolan's staff, the Pack came calling. In five short years McCarthy has become the fifth-winningest coach in team history (with the fourth-best winning percentage). If he beats Pittsburgh a week from Sunday, they'll name a street for him in Green Bay.
Had McCarthy been hired by the 49ers in 2005 and given a strong voice in the draft, it's easy to imagine him picking Rodgers, ready-made for the pro game and itching to get going. This is the alternate reality in which things would have turned out differently for the 49ers.
To say nothing of the Packers -- and Mel Kiper's hairline.
Contact Gary Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.