Troy Smith: Has San Francisco Truly Seen the End of the Alex Smith Era?
The San Francisco 49ers made a bold move three weeks ago by announcing in the week leading up to their game in London against the Denver Broncos that former third-string quarterback Troy Smith would start.
With erstwhile starter Alex Smith sidelined with a separated left (non-throwing) shoulder and backup David Carr coming off a truly dismal relief performance in which he lofted an easy interception and nearly threw two more despite rarely being given the chance to throw the ball, the move seemed more an outgrowth of necessity than a decisive push for change.
Troy Smith would soon show signs it could be both.
A New Era?
The 49ers are 2-0 under Troy Smith and back within striking of the division lead going down the stretch.
While the two wins have not come against great opponents and the offense still looks innocuous at times, when the pressure has been at its highest, Smith has delivered the team to victory.
At this point, what more can 49er fans ask for?
Still, speculation was rampant that, once Alex Smith is healthy and cleared to play, head coach Mike Singletary will revert to him and the Troy Smith Era will end before it starts.
Coach Sing was deliberately and vehemently evasive as to the identity of the 49ers' starting quarterback against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when pressed following the Rams' game, but named Troy Smith the starter for the foreseeable future on Monday.
The move was more than justified, and all signs suggest it should hold up, unlike the other experiments to relegate Alex Smith to backup duty.
No Place for Loyalty
At the very least, Troy Smith earned a longer look.
It is indeed difficult to say that with all Alex Smith has fought through in his five-plus years in red and gold that any newcomer short of a bona fide Pro Bowler could step in and in the span of two games against admittedly weak opponents truly earn his way into the starting role over Alex.
However, NFL football is a business, and in business, loyalty can kill you.
Alex certainly has more experience and he may even have a firmer understanding of the offense and a smoother delivery, but Troy simply gets the job done in ways Alex never did.
Troy has great awareness, a cannon arm, and feet that might just put Steve Young to shame. He provides the offense with a critical ability to extend plays and prolong drives that simply has not been seen with Alex at the helm.
The Numbers Don't Lie
Any good statistics professor will tell you that you can say whatever you want with statistics, but some numbers simply do not lie.
In two games as a starter, Troy Smith is 29 for 47 for 552 yards, adding 14 yards on the ground with one touchdown passing, one touchdown rushing, and a passer rating of 116.6.
Oh yeah, and he's done all that without giving up a turnover.
When was the last time Alex Smith put up numbers like that in even one game, let alone back-to-back efforts?
Will Coach Sing Turn Back to Alex?
The 49ers are still in a tough spot with respect to their hopes for salvaging this season. The team must do so if Coach Sing hopes to save face and keep his job.
But, Coach Sing has never been one to bow to public opinion.
Despite the ardent cries of the 49ers Faithful throughout Weeks 4 and 5, David Carr remained on the sideline until Alex Smith was forced to the bench with his arm in a sling. Some might say this steadfastness could eventually lead Coach Sing back to Alex, but it is all a matter of perspective.
Yes, Alex has long been Coach Sing's favorite son. Coach defied the fans and—in the eyes of many—better judgment by sending Shaun Hill to Detroit and Nate Davis to the practice squad.
After two inspired performances from Troy Smith in the wake of Singletary's cries for leadership at QB, he was conspicuously evasive in postgame interviews as to whether Troy would remain as the starter.
Recall, however, that Coach Sing brought Troy Smith to San Francisco in the waning days of training camp. Coach Sing then made the decision early in the week leading up to the Denver game that he had seen enough of David Carr and wanted to see Troy get his chance.
The fact that Alex Smith was in street clothes on the sideline Sunday speaks volumes.
Yes, technically, he had yet to be medically cleared to play, but he had been practicing most of the week.
If Coach Sing and his staff had major reservations about Troy Smith, it is more than likely they would have leaned heavily on the medical staff to clear Alex as a backup. The fact that he was not even dressed as an emergency QB suggests a comfort in Troy Smith that should help sustain him in the starting role.
One Last Gasp for the Captain?
Make no mistake: This decision was not made without hesitation.
Alex Smith has sacrificed and endured much for the organization, and that is a fact not quickly lost on a man of Coach Sing's character. Furthermore, while Troy Smith has shown some great things, he has been far from perfect. In fact, at times the offense has looked just as anemic under Troy as it did under Alex.
Troy led comebacks against Denver and St. Louis, but Alex came very close to doing so against New Orleans and Philadelphia.
Given the caliber of competition, that has to be worth something, right?
While Troy Smith seemed to get better as the game plan opened up against Denver, he seemingly suffered a sustained lull against St. Louis despite a much more aggressive offensive attack. Does all this not help Alex's chances of regaining the starting role?
More Than Just Stats and Wins
Perhaps, but likely not enough to make it happen.
Troy is not as bad as he looked at times against the Rams.
Most of his struggles were due to spotty offensive line protection, occasional lapses in route-running, the odd "creative" penalty call, and a strange desire by Mike Johnson to play him out of pocket-passer sets rather than let him make plays.
Despite such issues, Troy still managed to post a triple-digit passer rating, mount a game-winning drive against tremendous adversity (two touchdowns called back and a third-and-32), and avoid turning the ball over.
In particular, Troy's ability to recognize a coverage and leverage a drive-sustaining pass-interference call against Donny Avery in the fourth quarter showed incredible football sense, much more so than Alex ever exhibited.
Division Hopes Back Within Arm's Length?
All in all, Troy gives the 49ers advantages and options which Alex simply does not. If the team is serious about saving this season, and Coach Sing is serious about saving his job, Troy is the best option for the 49ers.
Unlike Tim Rattay, JT O'Sullivan, Shaun Hill, and any other QB to leapfrog Alex Smith on the 49er depth chart, Troy Smith has the skills and resolve to be a true starter in the NFL.
Maybe that means we have finally seen in the end of the Alex Smith era by the Bay.
Keep the Faith!