Troy Smith: Can He Break the Heisman Jinx and Salvage the 49ers' Season?

Patrick Goulding IIAnalyst IOctober 28, 2010

Troy Smith flashes the Vulcan symbol as he fires a pass at 49ers practice. May he "live long and prosper" as 49er quarterback!
Troy Smith flashes the Vulcan symbol as he fires a pass at 49ers practice. May he "live long and prosper" as 49er quarterback!Julian Finney/Getty Images

Matt Leinart, Jason White, Carson Palmer, Eric Crouch, and Chris Weinke.

Before Troy Smith won the Heisman Trophy in 2006, those were the last five college quarterbacks to win the award.

Carson Palmer has had by far the most success of the bunch, but even he has battled injuries and suffered through inconsistent play. Among the other four, three are no longer playing football, and Matt Leinart is warming the bench in Houston, after losing a starting role he never really earned in Arizona.

It seems with few exceptions, two things do not auger well for NFL players: posing for the cover of Sports Illustrated or the Madden video game franchise, and winning the Heisman Trophy. This seems especially true for QBs.

Luckily, Troy Smith never appeared on the cover of Madden, but he has the other two knocks against him. He won the Heisman Trophy following his 2006 campaign at The Ohio State University and was declared "The Best. Period." on the cover of SI that November.

Now four years hence, having started just two games in his NFL career while fighting the likes of Kyle Boller and Joe Flacco for playing time in Baltimore, Smith has been named the starter for the San Francisco 49ers when they face the Denver Broncos on Halloween in London.

Will the change be a treat for the 49ers' success-starved fans, or will it merely prolong the trick that has been the 2010 season to date?

The book on Smith paints him as Michael Vick version 2.0: great mobility and instincts paired with a cannon for an arm and equal aplomb at using both weapons to dissect a defense. SI seemed convinced in 2006, but then again similar accolades were thrust on Troy's namesake, Alex Smith, when he entered the league in 2005.

The 49ers chose to go to Troy Smith less out of will than necessity. Alex Smith suffered an injury to his non-throwing shoulder which apparently will keep him out of action for several weeks. Having left immediately from the game in which Alex Smith was injured to go to London, having only Troy Smith and David Carr as alternatives, and seeing the dismal display that Carr put on relief work in Carolina, the choice was a simple one.

Two major questions loom: what can Troy Smith do, and will we even get the chance to find out?

It is clear that Smith has a huge upside and if given the opportunity, could perhaps even salvage something worthwhile out of the rest of the 2010 season. However, the tandem of Mike Singletary and Mike Johnson gave Carr few opportunities to throw the ball in the second half last week, and one has to wonder whether a steady diet of Frank Gore will again be the offensive bill of fare at Wembley Stadium on Sunday.

It is important not to overload Smith with more than he is ready for, having never taken a snap in a regular season game in the 49ers' system, but pounding Frank Gore into a brick wall that knows exactly what to expect could well result in the team's seventh loss, even if they are playing a Broncos squad that surrendered 59 points to the Oakland Raiders last week.

While it is probably not reasonable to expect Johnson to open up the full complement of the passing tree in Sunday's game, there are two major indicators that seem to point toward the fact that Smith will get a chance to show what he can do.

First, regular readers will recall that mere hours before it happened, I sagely implored the 49ers to start Smith this Sunday regardless the circumstances of the other Smith's injury (you can thank me later). The fact that they have already done so should not be overlooked.

The offensive game plan in the second half in Carolina displayed a strong distrust in Carr, for obvious reasons, but if their intention was to skate by until Alex Smith returned to health trying to continue to pound the rock, Carr would be the perfect QB for the job. The coaching staff would have the built-in excuse of saying "You saw what happens when he tries to throw, what choice do we have?"

Going with Smith reflects not only greater confidence in him, but a desire to be more dynamic on offense than Carr can allow.

Secondly, the 49ers' official website published an article this afternoon in which they said Smith was preparing for this start "like a Mad Man." This was not some blogger or independent reporter trying to drum up reads by getting fans excited for the upcoming game; it came from the team themselves. If the team went to the trouble of publishing such an article then continued to favor runs over passes at more than a two to one margin when Smith finally took the field, how would that reflect on them?

All signs point toward Smith getting the green light to strut his stuff on Sunday, and maybe even toward the offense maintaining the dynamic game plan we have seen mere flourishes of to date throughout an entire game.

If both of these hold true, the only question left is how does Smith respond (well also how well can the 49ers control penalties, protect the football, run and pass block, etc; but you get the picture). He will have a good many faithful fans in his corner to be sure.

If Smith does succeed in sparking the offense, he should continue to be the starter moving forward. When the 49ers return stateside, look for them to jettison David Carr and recall Nate Davis. Davis and Smith can potentially provide a promising tandem at QB through the remaining eight games, while helping the 49ers gain a clearer understanding of what they have to build on for the future.

Should they fall flat, Alex Smith can provide at least some measure of insurance once he returns to health.

Hopefully it never comes to that.

Keep the Faith!