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Montreal signs Heisman winner Troy Smith: will he be a big-name QB bust, or something better?

Andrew Bucholtz
55 Yard Line

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Can Troy Smith be "The Best" again in the CFL?

The Montreal Alouettes made a surprising signing Wednesday, bringing in former star Ohio State quarterback, Heisman Trophy winner and five-year NFLer Troy Smith. Well, it's not that surprising from their perspective; they need a long-term plan to replace the venerable Anthony Calvillo (who's still playing reasonably well, but is turning 41 later this month), and a guy with Smith's talents and resume is certainly worth taking a look at. This is quite surprising from Smith's standpoint, though, as he becomes one of the very few quarterbacks with significant NFL experience to take a shot at the CFL. Don't expect that to mean he's guaranteed to succeed, however: for one thing, Smith's highly unlikely to play any time soon given that the Als have Calvillo and others with vastly more CFL experience ahead of him, and for another, he may not turn into a star even after becoming familiar with the league. Many big NCAA and NFL names (Chris Leak, Colt Brennan, Cleo Lemon, Ryan Dinwiddie, Jared Zabransky, Mitch Mustain and others in recent years: in older times, Vince Ferragamo was one of many who couldn't quite make the NFL-to-Montreal transition) have tried the CFL route and failed, and many of the quarterbacks who have found success north of the border have come from significantly less prominent backgrounds.

First, it's curious that Smith is taking Montreal up on this offer. While the CFL is often floated as an option for big-name American quarterbacks who fall out of the NFL or NCAA systems (see all the buzz about Tim Tebow and Johnny Manziel, for example), it's rare to see those with a significant NFL background actually head north. That's largely because of the pay difference. The NFL minimum salary for rookies is $405,000 this year: only the very top, well-established CFL quarterbacks make more than that, while the average CFL salary is estimated at about $60,000 and rookies often make significantly less.

It's unclear if Smith's going to wind up on the Alouettes' practice squad, but if he does, the pay there is typically only $500 a week. That motivated offensive lineman Levi Horn (who also had NFL experience) to turn down a PR slot from the B.C. Lions earlier this year in favour of heading home to take a casino job. While even $500 a week can be interesting to those looking for any sort of shot at professional football, it's often much less appealing to those who have significant experience in the better-paying realms of the NFL. Smith never quite established himself as an NFL starter and was only a fifth-round draft pick, so he obviously didn't make as much money as many NFL star quarterbacks, but he's probably quite well set up financially from his five years in that league. That makes his decision to come north (for a minimum of two years thanks to the elimination of the option year) a very unusual one.

It makes plenty of sense for Montreal to sign Smith given that he was willing to come north, though. This is a guy who had an amazing NCAA career, winning the 2006 Heisman Trophy and proving effective with both his arm (he collected 2542 passing yards with 30 touchdowns, six interceptions and a 65.3 per cent completion rating) and his legs (he ran for 204 yards and a touchdown that year, and was even more effective as a rusher in 2005, collecting 611 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground that season). He also showed off flashes of potential during his various NFL stints with Baltimore (2007-2009), San Francisco (2010) and Pittsburgh (2012), and his mobility and strong arm might make him an excellent fit for the Canadian game. Yes, there are question marks about him: after the 49ers failed to resign him following the 2010 season, he didn't show up anywhere until a brief UFL stint with the Omaha Nighthawks (hey, that was when former CFL coach Bart Andrus was that team's OC!) in 2011, where he was largely a backup to Jeremiah Masoli (who's also in the CFL now with Hamilton). He then went back to the NFL with Pittsburgh in 2012, but didn't make it out of training camp and hasn't played anywhere notable since. Still, he's only 29, and he has more than enough potential to be worth taking a look at if he's willing to give the CFL a shot.

Don't go presuming Smith will become a CFL star just yet, though. For one thing, it usually takes quite a while to adjust to this league for anyone, and that's doubly true for quarterbacks. The 12-man-game means they have to relearn foundational route schemes and coverages, while the three downs put an extra premium on accuracy and the bigger field (and other field differences, such as having the goalposts at the front) modifies routes and throws significantly. It generally takes quarterbacks years to learn the various differences, part of why it's so concerning that Winnipeg's electing to go with a CFL rookie (another one with an NFL background, though) in Max Hall this week. That won't be the case in Montreal, as they already have a great starter in Calvillo (and a seemingly-capable backup in Josh Neiswander), so they don't need to push Smith in at the deep end, but it's still going to be a significant learning curve for him. Yes, we've seen lots of quarterbacks shining in their first or second CFL start recently, but those guys have all been around the league for years, learning the game from the sidelines. It's a long process.

It's also notable that so many big-name quarterbacks have tried and failed to make it in the CFL before, while several lesser-touted ones have done just fine. Maybe that doesn't mean anything, or maybe it suggests that it's easier for guys who didn't get the same amount of hype and attention in college to be open to learning a vastly different game. Regardless of what the answer is there, it's clear that Smith will have to be willing to learn the Canadian game if he's going to find CFL success, and he'll have to be willing to wait for his opportunity to shine. Even if he meets those two criteria, he may still fail, as this can be a tough league to crack. He could be a great find for Montreal given his talent and potential, though: if he can demonstrate patience and an ability to adapt to the Canadian game, there's a chance he could perhaps one day become a star north of the border as well.

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