The history of the 49ers and the NFL nearly took a dramatic turn in 2009 during Mike Singletary’s first year as the team’s head coach. Instead of rolling forward with former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith, San Francisco had the option of trading for Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Singletary in a story with The Athletic made the franchise-altering decision to reject the trade. Via The Athletic’s Dan Pompei:

Quarterback Alex Smith was in his fifth season in Singletary’s first full year as head coach. The former first pick of the draft had been a massive disappointment, and moving on would have been best for all. But Singletary liked Smith, saw his potential, and knew he had worked with four coordinators in his first four years. He wanted to give him a chance, and he told him he would.

Then, 49ers owner John York, CEO Jed York, director of player personnel Trent Baalke and other executives called Singletary to a meeting. They had a trade in place with the Steelers for Ben Roethlisberger, who had recently been accused of sexual assault. Singletary vetoed the deal.

He felt an obligation to Smith, and he also believed he needed to stand for what he had been preaching.

“I had been telling the team I wanted a team of character,” he says. “I felt I had to be true to that. But if I could do it again, I’d do it differently.”

Singletary lists a slew of mistakes he made during his head-coaching tenure, but given that he’d operate differently if given the chance to do it again, it’s hard to imagine one is more damaging from an on-field perspective than the decision to veto a trade for Roethlisberger.

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San Francisco struggled at the quarterback position during Singletary’s two seasons as head coach. In 2009 the 49ers completed 59.1 percent of their throws for 3,293 yards, 23 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Smith started 10 games that year. Shaun Hill started the other six.

Things didn’t get better in 2010 with Alex Smith (10 starts), Troy Smith (six starts) and David Carr (one game) completed 56.4 percent of their throws for 3,613 yards with 19 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.

In that same two-year span Roethlisberger, who was 27 in 2009, completed 64.5 percent of his passes and averaged 3,764 yards, 21.5 touchdowns and 8.5 interceptions per season in 27 games. Since 2009 he’s also been to six Pro Bowls and gone to the playoffs eight times. He would’ve been a dramatic improvement under center for San Francisco.

Singletary’s reasoning for shying away from the trade was sound. Not wanting to take on a player accused of sexual assault is a logical decision. Sticking with Smith and trying to piece together a QB room with Hill and Troy Smith as backups is still an issue worth regretting.

What-ifs are always going to be part of sports, and a Roethlisberger trade may not have saved Singletary or brought the 49ers a championship. It’s a question worth pondering though since the ripple effects would sent tidal waves of change across the NFL over the past decade.


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