Troy Smith: First Time's a Charm?

Last time the Seattle Seahawks faced the Baltimore Ravens, quarterback Anthony Wright started his seventh NFL game and torched the Seahawks for four touchdowns -- all to equally anonymous receiver Marcus Robinson.

The Ravens won a 44-41 barnburner in overtime in 2003, and while most fans remember official Tom White's inability to deal with the game clock, it was a defense unable to adapt to a quarterback they should have shredded which proved to be its undoing.

Wright completed 20 of 37 passes for 319 yards and those four scores. He threw for two more touchdown passes the next week against San Francisco in another 44-pointer for Baltimore, and then faded into oblivion. After two below-average seasons in the eternal carousel that is Brian Billick's search for a quarterback above league average, Wright has thrown 10 passes and completed 4 for 45 yards for the Bengals and Giants in 2006 and 2007.

Last week against the Carolina Panthers, the Seahawks allowed Matt Moore, a first-time starter and rookie undrafted free agent from Oregon State, to throw 28 passes and complete 19 for 208 yards. It was an efficient, though hardly explosive display. It did, however, beg the question: What is it about newbie quarterbacks that seems to set the Seahawks on their heels? Against Moore, John Marshall's defense was surprisingly tentative, allowing underneath routes with large cornerback cushions and a near-total refusal to blitz.

Now that the Ravens are coming to Qwest Field this Sunday, the Seahawks face their second straight opposing quarterback starting his first NFL game -- Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith, who will replace Kyle Boller as Boller continues to recover from a concussion. Smith was a major player for Ohio State, but he'll have to face an entirely new set of tests at the NFL level.

Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said on Thursday that there shouldn't be any difference in how a defense prepares for a quarterback that doesn't have miles of film to study. "Well, we played one last week that hadn't played at all, and he did a pretty good job against us," Holmgren said when asked about going up against a young backup. "When you're looking at a situation like that, if the players are quite different in what they actually do in the football game – I wouldn't imagine the game plan would be much different – but if one runs a little more and one's a little bit more of a pocket passer, or however you distinguish that, then you have to factor in those ideas. But, generally speaking, I have our defensive guys prepare for the starter. He's going to play, and that's who we're looking at."

Having lost eight straight games, and handing the Dolphins their first victory of the season last week, the Ravens could come into this game one of two ways -- bereft of motivation in a lost season, or angry and cornered. Again, Holmgren keyed on the idea of optimal preparation, no matter who you're facing.

"I think the emotion of this and at the end of the season is really interesting," he said. "And it's tough on coaches, because you're coaching to motivate for all sorts of reasons. Last week, I thought we came out a little bit flat in our third game of four on the road, and we played a team that we had a better record than and so on. We just didn't play very well in my opinion. I think it's important going into the playoffs, that you do have some momentum. We have tremendous respect for the Ravens. I look over at the defensive side of the ball – that's the side I'm mainly looking at most of the time – and I see the same names, the same great players: Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs, the big defensive linemen. I see them on film, and they play with tremendous energy. We're under no illusions. We have to play our football and get ready for the playoffs. We know Baltimore is going to play hard. It's football, and regardless of your situation at the end of the year, if you're on the field, you better crank it up because the other guy is going to be cranked up. You can't assume anything else."

The X-Factor for Smith seems to be that after such an assembly line of quarterbacks (he's the third to start for Baltimore this year, following Steve McNair and Boller), his teammates have a great deal of faith in his abilities. "Troy came in there and I was excited for him, to tell you the truth," running back Willis McGahee said about Smith's first real performance as a quarterback, when he engineered a game-tying drive against the Dolphins before the Ravens lost the game in overtime. "I said, ‘Come on, Troy. We've got to go downfield.  We're going to get you your first touchdown.'  I thought we had a touchdown, but they said [Devard] Darling was out; his feet were in but the ball was outside.  So, they said there was no touchdown and the ball was on the 1-yard line.  But, I was happy just for [Troy] to show people he can go down and move the ball downfield."

"The difference between Troy and other quarterbacks [is that] Troy doesn't wait around for his opportunity," McGahee continued. "When he got his opportunity, he took advantage of it.  Other guys that I've played with came in and had opportunities and they just went with the flow. They didn't really try to capitalize off of it.  That was the difference between Troy and other guys."

Legendary left tackle Jonathan Ogden echoed McGahee's thoughts. "I think [Smith] did a good job considering that he's coming in off the bench. [It is] a whole different animal when you're playing the whole game, starting, then when you come in off the bench the last two or three drives. But he did a really good job. He didn't let it fluster him. The first drive, everyone was a little shaky and then we needed a drive down there after that kick out of bounds, and he did a great job of driving us down there. He did what he had to do. Handed it off, made a couple passes, and he did what needed to be done, and he made a couple checks that were necessary in the running game for us to get all those runs that we made. So, he did what he had to do. [I am] very pleased with how he performed."

If Smith has any first-time jitters, you can't tell by his words. This is a humble professional who takes this new life as it comes. How did he feel when he heard that receiver Derrick Mason said that Smith played like an eight- or nine-year veteran? "Well, I'm very thankful for that comment from Derrick Mason because that speaks volumes, when a leader of the team talks about you in that way. I just try to pretty much understand and continue to be focused on my job. I think if I'm focused on mine and everybody else around me can do theirs accordingly, [we'll be fine]. That's the way I approach it. I have to have everything – every ‘T' crossed and every ‘I' dotted, and that's what I do."

What has been the biggest challenge at this level? "The difference now would definitely be the level of play. It's something totally different. Stepping into this situation and getting a chance to play at the highest level, you have to have the highest level of professionalism, the highest level of being a man, being an athlete. Not to take anything away from college football, because college football is incredible and great. These guys here in this locker room have families, they have kids, they have wives. That was the most eye-opening thing for me."

"I get ready in simple ways," Smith said, when asked how he's preparing for the next step in his career. "Studying my playbook repeatedly, putting myself into situations to where I have to think for myself and on my own, not looking at black and white when the answer is right in front of me. I just rep it that way. I continuously write down the plays and write down the different schemes and things like that, because with repetition, it just comes naturally to you. [Offensive coordinator] Rick Neuheisel is incredible in preparing me. I bounce a compliment off of him too, because I think without him getting me ready for these weeks to come, I wouldn't have been the player that I was on the field."

Having a Neuheisel prodigy upset the Seahawks would no doubt be doubly upsetting for most Washingtonians. There's only one thing for the Seahawks to do -- stop the trend that's allowed a few new kids to play beyond their years.

Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET, a staff writer for Football Outsiders, a contributing author to Pro Football Prospectus 2007, and he writes NFL previews for the New York Sun. Top Stories