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03 Nov 2004

Every Play Counts Goes to College

By Michael David Smith

On April 23, 2005, Paul Tagliabue will stride to the podium at Madison Square Garden and announce, "With the first pick in the 2005 NFL draft, the Miami Dolphins select quarterback from the University of California Aaron Rodgers."

My plan for this week's installment of Every Play Counts was to study the Miami Dolphins' defense. I wanted to tell you about guys playing valiantly, even though the cause was lost. I wanted to let you know that Zach Thomas, Jason Taylor, and their teammates were fighting hard on every play, even though the offense precluded the team from winning.

Then I watched the game. Monday night marked the occasion that the Miami Dolphins' defense officially decided to mail in the rest of the season. With a lackluster effort, they simply allowed the Jets to overpower them. I lost track of how many times Jets center Kevin Mawae out-hustled and out-muscled the Dolphins' defenders, but it was an ugly sight.

So that got me to thinking about what these Dolphins, who without a doubt are the worst team in the league, will need to do in the off-season. And the most logical explanation is that they'll acknowledge they were wrong to trade for A.J. Feeley this year and use the first pick in the draft to take a quarterback.

Fortunately, it just so happens that I taped the Cal-Arizona State game on Saturday night. And I think I found the answer to Dolphins' fans' prayers.

His name is Aaron Rodgers.

I watched Rodgers, the Cal quarterback, on every play of his team's 27-0 victory against Arizona State. And although his numbers look pedestrian (15 of 29 for 165 yards, with one touchdown and no interceptions) the numbers don't tell the whole story.

The first play of the game no doubt had scouts drooling. After Cal took over in great field position when Arizona State fumbled the opening kickoff, Rodgers took the field with two receivers to his right. One receiver, Robert Jordan, lined up in the slot and ran a wheel route to the outside, where Rodgers hit him in the end zone with a perfect pass. But lots of college quarterbacks throw nice passes. What makes Rodgers unique is the way he helped his receiver get open. Rodgers surveyed the field and looked first at the receiver who had split to the far right and came to the inside. Rodgers' action froze the safety on the inside and allowed Jordan to get open in the end zone. (I should note that television replays seemed to show that Jordan bobbled the ball as he stepped out of bounds, and the pass probably should have been ruled incomplete. But the only thing that matters in an assessment of Rodgers is the fact that the pass was right on the money.)

Rodgers' second pass was the type of quick out to a wide receiver that always makes announcers say, "That's a dangerous pass because if it gets picked off it's six points the other way." But Rodgers showed great velocity on his throw and zipped it to his receiver before it could be intercepted. And on his third pass, as he felt pressure, he calmly stepped forward and found an open receiver just past the first-down marker. These are the type of plays -- patient when he can be, decisive when he has to be -- that Ben Roethlisberger made in college last year.

No prospect is perfect, of course, and Rodgers has his flaws. He could use a little bit more work in handling the pass rush -- on one third-and-8, he looked jittery, shuffled his feet in the pocket and overthrew his receiver. On a second-and-10, he didn't see the blitz coming and took a sack when a running back was open on the hot route. But on the next play Arizona State blitzed again, and that time Rodgers found his receiver.

Late in the game, when the outcome was clear, Rodgers looked like he got a little bored. That (along with four dropped passes) accounts for his disappointing numbers.

Rodgers is a 20-year-old junior, but I can't imagine he'll be back at Cal next year. His coach, Jeff Tedford, has a reputation for grooming first-round quarterbacks: Trent Dilfer and David Carr played for Tedford at Fresno State, Akili Smith and Joey Harrington played for him at Oregon, and Kyle Boller preceded Rodgers at Cal. That quintet hasn't exactly set the NFL on fire, but NFL scouts still love the offensive system Tedford runs. Of all the current NFL teams, Tedford's offense reminds me most of the system run in Minnesota, which uses a lot of three-receiver sets and deep passes to open up the run.

A few teams will have a problem with the fact that Rodgers had knee surgery in January, and he doesn't have great speed. But like Carr, he's an effective runner without putting together any highlight-reel plays. Twice he ran the option to pick up a first down on third and short.

A lot can change between now and April, but right now, my money is on Rodgers to be the first player taken in the draft. I'm not saying he'll make Dolphins fans forget Dan Marino, but he'll be the right choice.

One last thing: Please, Dolphins brass, if you do draft Rodgers, do something about your offensive line before you send him on the field.

Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season. If you have a player or a unit you would like tracked in Every Play Counts, suggest it by emailing mike-at-footballoutsiders.com.

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 03 Nov 2004

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