The Montreal Alouettes' release of quarterback Troy Smith Thursday is remarkable, but not for the reasons it might seem at first. It's not because he was a huge NCAA star who won the Heisman Trophy at Ohio State in 2006 and went on to some NFL success; we've seen plenty of big-name American quarterbacks fail in the CFL, from NCAA touchdown leader Colt Brennan to NCAA passing yards leader Timmy Chang (who apparently was a great Tim Hortons employee, though) to Florida star Chris Leak (who famously led the Gators to a 41-14 demolition of Smith's Buckeyes in the 2006-07 BCS championship game) to third-overall NFL pick Akili Smith to Boise State star Jared Zabransky. We've even seen Heisman-winning QBs fail in the CFL before (looking at you, Andre Ware and Eric Crouch). What makes Smith's release stand out so much is that his start was so promising. How did he go from Anthony Calvillo's heir apparent to released in less than a year?
Smith's career in Montreal was notable because he broke the mould. The team only signed him in August last year (after having him on their negotiation list for years), so he didn't even get a training camp, and it often takes years for American quarterbacks to adjust to the many notable differences in the CFL. Smith was able to find quick success, though, getting a chance to start late last October after Calvillo went down with a concussion and the team's other backups failed, and he led the Alouettes to a 36-5 win in his very first start. Even before that, Smith was impressing in limited action, and his comments to Les Carpenter indicated how he recognized the need to learn the differences in the Canadian game (something many never pick up). He helped lead Montreal to a great stretch run and a playoff appearance, and while the Alouettes narrowly fell to Hamilton in last year's East semifinal, Smith's future looked bright. He entered this season as Montreal's clear starter, with a chance to become their next great quarterback. So, where did it all go wrong?
A big part of Smith's downfall wasn't about him. The Alouettes made some unusual coaching moves this year, bringing in Tom Higgins as their new head coach in February (very late by CFL standards), hiring Rick Worman as offensive coordinator and then firing him before the first preseason game, and going without a formal offensive coordinator (and with inexperienced coach and former quarterback Ryan Dinwiddie doing most of the playcalling) for months. That led to a muddled offence without any clear strategy, and one that too often focused on low-percentage long throws, ignoring easy quick hits to receivers or the running back. To fix that, Montreal brought in famed former quarterbacks Jeff Garcia and Turk Schoenert as consultants in late July and early August, along with legendary former coach Don Matthews, but they waited until mid-August to shuffle their staff, firing receivers coach Erik Campbell and giving defined roles to Garcia (quarterbacks), Schoenert (receivers) and Dinwiddie (OC). That marked the start of a real coherent offensive plan in Montreal this year, one that put their quarterbacks in a position to succeed. Unfortunately for Smith, he didn't get to reap the rewards, as he was benched in favour of first Alex Brink and then Jonathon Crompton, and placed on the six-game injured list later that week.
With that said, though, Smith did regress from 2013 to 2014. His strong arm was still present, but his accuracy (a problem even last year) got even worse this season. Accuracy usually improves with more CFL experience, but it didn't in his case; his completion percentage fell from an already-troubling 52.6 per cent in 2013 to a dismal 47.7 per cent this year. He also became more pick-prone: after throwing nine touchdowns and five interceptions last season, he tossed four of each this year. Moreover, his yards per completion fell from a superb 14.7 in 2013 to 11.9 this year. Even with the Alouettes relying on home-run balls, he couldn't make the throws required. It's interesting to ponder how things could have gone if he'd been put in a better offensive scheme this season, but Smith's own play had plenty to do with his release, and his failings (along with him being 30, old for a relatively-inexperienced CFL quarterback) are why he may not get another shot in this league. That's a shame, given how promising his beginnings last year were.
Perhaps the Smith saga shows yet again how difficult it is to succeed as a CFL pivot. He had such an incredibily promising background from his time at Ohio State and in the NFL, and he managed to overcome the experience hurdle in his first year, playing like a competent CFL quarterback and showing signs of being a potential star down the road. Even with that, he found a way to regress in the offseason, and Montreal's coaching changes and offensive design didn't help him out at all, leading to his eventual replacement and release. CFL glory can be fleeting, and that's something other young quarterbacks (including current Alouettes' starter Crompton, a former NCAA star in his own right at Tennessee) would do well to keep in mind. If you don't keep improving, the path from starter to cut can be a quick one.