Much has been made of the San Francisco 49ers' draft day blunder in 2005.
Back in April 2005, the 49ers were still reeling from a 2-14 2004 regular season, which tied a franchise mark for futility as they prepared for the draft holding the No. 1 overall pick. It was the first time they held the top spot since 1979, but dangerously insane then-general manager Joe Thomas had already traded the pick, along with three others, to the Buffalo Bills in exchange for a grossly depleted OJ Simpson in 1978.
The entire team was in major disarray in 2005, but the QB position was the poster child of the team's futility. Since parting with former Pro Bowler and direct Steve Young successor Jeff Garcia in 2003, the 49ers had seen a total of three men line up under center in 2004—a list that included such illustrious names as Tim Rattay, Ken Dorsey and Cody Pickett. Use of the No. 1 pick to select a future franchise QB was basically a foregone conclusion.
The 49ers were left with a choice between local Cal product Aaron Rodgers and University of Utah star Alex Smith. They choose Smith and we all the know the rest. People are still complaining about the choice and remain insistent that Rodgers would have righted the ship in San Francisco by now.
However, lost in this frivolous exercise is the fact that the 49ers narrowly missed a draft board where absolutely no argument or controversy would have existed, one that would have included USC star and Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart.
Following the 2004 BCS National Championship Game, Leinart's name was every bit as hot as Andrew Luck's is now. He was destined to be the new face of the 49ers franchise—until he announced his intent to return to USC for a senior season that saw his stock drastically fall.
Rodgers got to sit and watch Brett Favre work his witchcraft for several years before being relied upon. Smith was thrust into the fire immediately and spent his first several seasons running for his life or nursing an injury.
Leinart, meanwhile, fell to the Arizona Cardinals in 2006 and was expected to quickly assume starting duties for a team described as being on the verge of greatness. He was the starter for most of 2006, but struggled in the beginning of 2007 and fell behind Kurt Warner, who was thought to be a backup and mentor on the depth chart until the end of 2009.
Now, after being cut by the Cardinals and spending a season as the Houston Texans' emergency QB, Leinart claims he is ready to start.
Leinart may not be the most obvious option for the 49ers at QB, but he deserves consideration. His college record and Heisman Trophy are proof that he has definite skill, but thus far, he hasn't found success. His seasons behind Warner learning the game in Arizona should serve him well, and while he would need to learn a different offense, he may now have the maturity and motivation to thrive.
On top of that, Leinart could be a great bargain for the 49ers, and one that would be free from outside competition. If the 49ers do pursue Leinart, they should certainly have a Plan B, but he may well be worth a look.
Leinart's last year at USC and relatively low draft position have somewhat saved him from thus far joining the pantheon of major draft busts, but if he hopes to remain out of that group, he needs to succeed soon. Had he been taken by the 49ers in 2005, he likely would have failed just as Smith did. But now the timing may be right for him to restart his career with the team many expected him to join years ago.
If Leinart can succeed, and finally give the 49ers a real replacement for Steve Young after more than 11 years, maybe he will even make me view USC in a more favorable light. Then again, he is only one man.
Keep the Faith!
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