Green-room nightmare: Inside Aaron Rodgers' draft-day fall

"It's not so funny when you're the last one in the green room."

-- Aaron Rodgers, draft day, 2005

The day before the 2005 NFL draft, Aaron Rodgers joked with a few other prospects that they should throw some money in a pool to see who would be the last one called out of the green room at the Javits Convention Center in New York.

By the time Rodgers was picked at No. 24 by the Green Bay Packers, the rest of the players were long gone.

It was no longer a joke to Rodgers, whose draft day generated one of the most awkward green-room moments in NFL history.

Some four hours after the San Francisco 49ers took a different quarterback, Alex Smith of Utah, with the No. 1 pick -- a spot that once looked like it had Rodgers' name written all over it -- Rodgers was still there with his family, his agent and a few friends.

Around them, workers in the green room who wanted to leave for the day gave the Rodgers clan -- as one person put it -- "the stink eye" as they cleared tables and stacked chairs.

As the 2017 draft approaches, there will be another prospect left as the last one in the green room, but he likely won't have to experience the agony that Rodgers did when he went from being a possible No. 1 pick to a sympathetic figure who couldn't avoid the spotlight.

This is the story of Rodgers -- who would go on to win a Super Bowl and two NFL MVP awards and remains at the top of his game as he enters his 13th pro season -- and the 2005 draft.

The 49ers' big decision

The 49ers were going to take a quarterback; that much everyone knew. Mike Nolan had just been hired as the head coach of a team that had gone 2-14 with Tim Rattay and Ken Dorsey as its starting quarterbacks. It was down to the 21-year-old Rodgers, who grew up in Chico, California, and played nearby at the University of California after a one-year stint at Butte College; and the 20-year-old Smith, who led the University of Utah into the national spotlight.

Mel Kiper Jr., ESPN NFL draft analyst: "Two to three weeks before the draft, I was on TV with Chris Mortensen, and Mort was talking about what he was hearing. The scuttlebutt from the league at that point was that Aaron Rodgers was going to go No. 1 to San Francisco. Then that flipped to Alex Smith. It was a case where nobody really knew."

Mike McCarthy, ex-49ers offensive coordinator: "We went to [Rodgers'] workout. It's the best live workout that I've still seen. I was really impressed by him that day because I didn't have that feeling on film. [Cal coach] Jeff [Tedford] does such a great job offensively; they're very detailed and structured. They're prolific. They easily could've won the national championship. But the way he moved around and threw the ball that day at Cal-Berkeley was extremely impressive. So we went to lunch -- Mike Nolan and Jim Hostler and Aaron and I went to lunch ... I really got to experience his intellect. Extremely bright. Both of those guys were that way. They're very similarly wired. They both had very high IQs."

Jim Hostler, ex-49ers quarterbacks coach: "You're making a very close decision. It wasn't a clear-cut like picking Andrew Luck. There was no clear-cut. That decision was as hard as it was. Both evenly matched players."

Jeff Tedford, ex-Cal coach: "I felt like it was going to be a toss-up. We felt like Aaron was the most prepared guy, had a great workout and those types of things. He was more pro-style ready coming out of our offense and so we felt like it was going to be a great fit for him in San Francisco, and we were all obviously hoping that he would go with the No. 1 pick and then it didn't happen. From what I heard later on, it was more of a personality deal of their coach being closer to Alex or felt like he had a better relationship with Alex."

Craig Rigsbee, ex-Butte College coach: "There's no question, he really did [want to play for the 49ers]. Aaron's competitive. He felt he was the best guy. You hear these rumors that they thought he was too cocky or they didn't like him or a coach thought he had too much swagger. He's not cocky at all, but that's his persona -- that he has a quiet confidence. They asked him questions and he's a very honest kid and he just told them, 'I think I'm the best one.' To me, I just thought it was such a no-brainer, and I'm not even talking about ability and all that. But being from Cal, being Northern Californian would've been great for a lot of the things they could've done."

Aaron Rodgers*: "There was an article that was done when [the 49ers] were still looking for a coach that said: 'Hire this guy' with a picture of Coach Tedford, and 'Draft this guy' with a picture of me. I just thought it was the perfect situation. California kid who had been a lifelong Niner fan. I thought at the time I was the most NFL-ready quarterback coming out of college because I played in a pro-style system."

Mike Nolan, ex-49ers coach: "The makeup of Aaron was much more confident, cocky, arrogant and those are positive things for a quarterback. From Dan Marino to John Elway to you name it, all the guys who are great quarterbacks are all very confident people, and they're basically confident and arrogant. Aaron has that, he really does, whereas Alex was much more quiet in a way. It was one of the things I kept thinking about because I know what it was like with some of the good ones I was around. It was a conflict there for me. I kind of made everything fit the decision and from my point of view, looking back on myself, obviously it's always easy to look back and grade it, but I think I just went with ... let's put it this way, everyone was on the same page, but it wasn't the better of two decisions. It was an OK decision, but it wasn't the best decision."

Rodgers***: "The story that I heard, and I don't know if it's true or not, but that Mike Nolan said that when he saw Alex open the car door for his mom, then he knew that was the quarterback he wanted. And I said, well I was at lunch with him, my mom wasn't there, and my dad wasn't there."

The fall and the wait

By the time Rodgers showed up at draft headquarters on April 23, 2005, he knew he wouldn't be the No. 1 pick. Word had reached his camp that the 49ers planned to take Smith. Still, Rodgers never thought he'd be around long. He had a great private workout with Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden, and the Buccaneers had the No. 5 overall pick. Instead, they picked running back Cadillac Williams.

Jon Gruden, ex-Tampa Bay head coach: "I went and watched tape with Aaron. I can still remember it like yesterday. I watched tape with Coach Tedford and Aaron. Was really impressed in the film room and then we went out right there in the stadium. We walked right outside and started playing catch to loosen him up and then you look up in the stands and here comes this strange figure walking down the aisle and Aaron says, 'Who is that?' I said that's our receiver. He says, 'Well who is it?' I said, 'You'll see.' So it's Jerry Rice. That was pretty good. That was a great day. I've still got the picture hanging right here at the FFCA [Fired Football Coaches Association]. It's a memento of why I was fired. You can see one of the greatest regrets in my lifetime."

Kiper: "How did he drop? It was a year where once they took Smith then you look down and you saw who was going to take the quarterback next? There were some busts in there, some major busts in that group. David Pollack to Cincinnati did nothing. Erasmus James to Minnesota did nothing. Alex Barron to St. Louis. Matt Jones was a complete bust in Jacksonville. Mark Clayton didn't have a great career. There was a lot of busts in that group. Mike Williams, I liked him coming out of USC, but he was a bust to the Lions. Carlos Rogers was OK. Troy Williamson was a bust to Minnesota. So to me, it was just a crazy year. He started to slide and then you looked at teams and said, 'Well, they don't really need a quarterback.' That's what happens."

Rodgers**: "It's embarrassing. You know the whole world is watching, your phone's buzzing every two minutes and you're hoping it's a team calling. But it's just your buddies just making jokes, and it's hard to laugh in a situation where you know everybody's laughing at you."

Andrew Brandt, ex-Packers vice president of player finance: "We were shaking our heads. The poor kid. I didn't even know this, but [Rodgers' agent at the time, Mike] Sullivan told me the caterers kept giving them the stink eye, like 'we want to get out of here,' and they're cleaning up around him, they're stacking chairs around him. And we never suggested it as far as I know to the commissioner's office, but we said they've got to change this. Of course [in 2007] Brady Quinn, the same thing, and they moved him. I do remember, we were looking at each other -- I believe No. 5 was Gruden, [and we said] 'OK, they're going to take him,' and then they took Cadillac Williams. Then No. 6 was Tennessee, they're going to take him. No, that was Pacman [Jones]. Then Kansas City [at No. 15] we thought, and no they took Derrick Johnson, who was another one on our list. He just kept falling."

Darla Rodgers, Aaron's mom**: "He had to really persevere and be a gentleman for five and a half hours with cameras just hovering around hoping there would be a breakdown."

Rodgers*: "The camera just on you the entire time and having to keep it together ... Here I am, we're in the 20s and they're cleaning up the other six tables they had set up in there, and here I am sitting there with my mom and dad and my brother and my best friend and my agent and you've got the camera looking at you the entire time and knowing that there's a ton of people watching this and knowing I've got to keep it get together when really I just wanted just go somewhere and be alone and not having to deal with this and just wake me up when it's over.

"Next thing you know I'm four hours into this and still nobody's picking me. The toughest stretch was after we got past 16, I don't know if it was the Saints or Carolina or somebody [it was Houston at 16] who was a long shot, but the last kind of potential [team to take him], but between 17 and 23 there was no way I was getting picked. They all had established starters and I'm thinking to myself, 'That's 15 minutes for each team, so that's an hour and a half.' That was a tough hour and a half."

Rigsbee: "As soon as he started dropping, all these talking heads on TV are saying, 'He can't throw the deep ball, he's not a good enough athlete, he holds the ball too long.' They all start ripping on him and saying why he's falling, and then they have the audacity to say he couldn't throw the long ball, and if you look at him he's probably the best long-ball thrower in the NFL. He threw the ball 65 yards in the air on the button. They were all downgrading him and I was getting pissed watching it. If he would've gone No. 1, no one would've said a word. But as soon as he started dropping, they found all these flaws. They said the last three quarterbacks Jeff Tedford put out weren't any good, so he's going to follow in line. I'm like, 'No he's not.'"

Gruden: "Everybody had the same concerns. Coach Tedford had some guys before him that didn't play great. So there was a little concern, but he won games at Cal. He beat good teams at Cal. He played good in big moments."

Tedford: "At that time I'd had five first-round draft picks at quarterback, and he was the sixth one. Not all first-round draft picks make it. It's hard to do and typically when they are those guys, they're going to teams that have some work to do and sometimes they're thrown into the fire early."

Ted Thompson, Packers general manager: "I kept wondering why they keep showing him. It's not like great television. But as it got closer, I had less sympathy for him and more anxiety for us about wanting us to get him. And then it just kept getting closer and closer and all these phone calls are still going on, but in my mind those phone calls are done. We're either going to get him or not. I was way beyond that by that time."

Packers on the clock

On the morning of the draft, the Packers got word that Rodgers could fall, but even they didn't expect him to be there at No. 24. Still, general manager Ted Thompson, in his first year after taking over the duties from Mike Sherman, who remained on as coach, prepared for that possibility.

Thompson: "I got on this idea of maybe taking Aaron late, maybe 10 days before the draft, and I spent an inordinate amount of those 10 days watching tape and doing the study over and over because sometimes you have these names up there that you're not really paying attention to because you don't feel like you're going to go that way. In this case, it started looking more and more possible but it also looked completely out of the realm of possibility because there were two quarterbacks in the draft and we're talking about pick No. 24. I said, 'There's only two: how is either of them going to get to us? And the one we want, how is he going to get to us?'"

Sherman: "Ted said he was possibly falling in the draft, and everybody thought that was hard to believe, but I remember specifically going down to the film room and watching the USC game again. I don't think they won, but he brought them back. That was the morning of the draft. It was a Saturday morning back when the draft was on Saturday and Sunday. So it was about 8 o'clock in the morning and we're watching that tape. He really did a hell of a job managing the game. That was the last vision I had of him and I'm sure Ted did the same thing."

Bob Harlan, Packers president: "The day of the draft, when Aaron kept falling, when we were probably five or six choices away, Ted asked me if I'd step out of the room with him. We went into his office and he said, 'If Rodgers is still there, I'm going to take him because he's the top guy on our board and there he sits.' He said, 'We're going to catch some heat because Brett's playing and playing well and people are going to say you've got so many needs why in the world are you taking a guy who's going to sit on the bench?' It was the same thing I told Ron [Wolf] all those years, I told Ted, 'It's your club. You do what you want to want to do and make the choice you want to make, and we'll stand with you.' So the two of us go back in the room and there it comes and there he sits. Ted stands up and says, 'Fellas, I'm going to take Rodgers.'"

Brandt: "We get to 24 and we got one name staring at us, and it's Aaron Rodgers. We know we have the most durable quarterback in football, so I can just sense [in] the room to my right were the coaching rumblings where you could just sense they're like 'Oh my God, are we really going to do this? We're going to take a player that can't help us this year, maybe not next year, maybe not the year after, maybe never.' There was some rumbling. And I sense what was going on to my left side, which is more management oriented, and it was the same thing they always say, which is trust the board. We put in all our scouting, we're going to take the best player available. And obviously management won out over coaching. It was one of those ultimate best-player-available decisions. But you look at the Green Bay Packers that year, that's the last thing you would think that we'd pick."

Sherman: "That's probably a good argument why you split the job up between coach and general manager. Coaches obviously, I'm not saying that I would've done it any differently. Aaron was such a spectacular value at that position, but at the same time I can honestly say a defensive player would've been screaming at me, too. I think Ted recognized the fact that for the future of the Green Bay Packers, this is an opportunity he couldn't pass up ... because you need to think long-term obviously. But then you also have Brett Favre in his later years and you want to support him as best you can. I don't think Brett would've ever questioned it if we took a good receiver."

One last hesitation ... and more crickets

Even though Thompson had decided to pick Rodgers at No. 24, he wanted to use the entire 15 minutes just to see if a quarterback-needy team called to try to trade up. In the meantime, Thompson wanted to get Rodgers' agent, Mike Sullivan, on the phone.

Brandt: "I'll never forget calling the number I had for Mike and I heard this brusque hello and I said, 'Mike' and the voice on the other end said, 'No, this is Aaron.' And I said, 'Oh Aaron, it's Andrew Brandt from the Green Bay Packers,' and I just cringed as I said, 'Can I talk to Mike?' And he hands Mike the phone, and it's surreal because I'm watching this on TV and you can tell he's gritting his teeth saying, 'Andrew, are you going to take him? Are you going to take him?' And I had to tell him to just hold on. Ted is just looking at me saying, 'Don't tell him. Hold him there.' And we're just seeing if the phone is going to ring, and it was crickets, man. There were no calls. Think about the NFL landscape if that phone rang with something we liked, just think about the change and what could've happened."

Thompson: "I don't think we would have [traded the pick]. It's easy for me to say no and that we had it all squared away. You just want to make sure you don't pass on something you shouldn't pass on, but we weren't actively trying to trade the pick. We were going to take him."

"And we're just seeing if the phone is going to ring [with a trade offer for the 24th pick], and it was crickets, man. There were no calls. Think about the NFL landscape if that phone rang with something we liked, just think about the change and what could've happened." Former Packers VP of player finance
Andrew Brandt

Harlan: "We caught some heat. Probably the two things that created the most havoc from our fans were when Ron traded away a No. 1 pick for Brett Favre -- people started writing me saying, 'Who is this guy you hired and what in the world is he doing?' And then when we took Aaron, we got some noise from fans, saying, 'We had other needs, we don't need a guy to come in and sit on the bench who's a first-round draft choice.' As I tell people now, the Favre trade probably turned out to be one of the top five in league history and certainly the best in Packers history, and how fortunate have we been to have two quarterbacks for 25 years?"

Thompson: "I just remember shaking Aaron's hand the next day, and I think we both knew we were kind of tied to each other."

Rodgers**: "I think I grew up a lot. I think that's why I say the draft day was the best day of my career because it was a humbling experience that I needed."

A Rodgers-McCarthy reunion

It was less than a year later when the Packers fired Sherman and hired McCarthy. The same man who was part of the group responsible for Rodgers' fall in the draft would now be his head coach. McCarthy almost immediately addressed the elephant in the room.

McCarthy: "He was mad at me. I said, 'Well, what did I do?' It was the first day of quarterback school. I said, 'Hey, I'm sure you have some feelings on this, and that's why I always tried to stay above it.' It would've made things go easier for him [by saying], 'You were my guy; they didn't listen to me.' But what does that do? I worked for the [49ers] organization, and there's a lot of other conversations that went on with that and a lot of things that go into that decision. You're talking about the No. 1 pick in the draft. There's different things happening around the program at the time. Him being a local, that would've been a bigger challenge for him. There's a lot of things that were talked about that frankly I wasn't a part of.

"But pure football. I mean if you're going to take a quarterback that high you better see him throw live, because the people that make comments about the ball carriage, they didn't watch him throw live. If you were paying attention that day at that workout you've would've been like, 'Wow.'"

Notes: Rodgers, through a Packers spokesman, declined to be interviewed for this story, saying he did not have anything to add to what has been said in the past. *Quote from an interview with Graham Bensinger **Quotes from an ESPN interview with Trent Dilfer in 2012 ***Quotes from HBO's "Any Given Wednesday"