At this time last year, Troy Smith was wondering what went wrong in the BCS Championship Game as he polished his Heisman Trophy and geared up for the NFL Scouting Combine.
Then, a few short months later, after being drafted by the Baltimore Ravens, he was taken aback by the amount of talent on a team with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations.
"There are Pro Bowlers everywhere," Smith said upon joining the Ravens in 2007. "I kind of pinch myself when I come to that realization, because they treat you just like a regular person. Even though all of these players have incredible accolades, they don't act like that. I hope that rubs off on the rest of the rookies, because it's doing that on me."
What a difference a year makes.
Now, as the NFL offseason officially gets under way, Smith is positioning himself to compete for the Ravens' top quarterback job. Incumbent starter Steve McNair is coming off a season-ending injury and backup Kyle Boller seems better suited for the No. 2 role. Longtime coach Brian Billick was fired last month and his replacement, John Harbaugh, will let every player compete for playing time.
On top of all that, Smith was impressive during his appearances late in the season. He saw his first NFL action in the fourth quarter of a Week 14 game against the Colts, scoring his first touchdown—on a quarterback scramble—albeit in a losing cause.
"It definitely leaves a damper on the moment because we didn't get a win," Smith said. "[The touchdown] was okay, under the circumstances, but if we had been winning, it would have been much better. Moments like that are for your family. It helps the team a little bit, but we needed to get a win."
Needing to get a win, but coming up short, was the theme of Baltimore's 2007 season. Taking a giant step backward after a 13-3 campaign last year, the Ravens struggled mightily during a 5-11 season and last-place finish. But they got positive signs from Smith that he had adjusted to the NFL style of play during the last three games of the year.
Smith got better with each performance, capped by Baltimore's 27-21 win over arch rival Pittsburgh in Week 17. He went 16-for-27 for 171 yards and a touchdown against the Steelers, good for a 90.2 quarterback rating. His final numbers were respectable: In four games, Smith completed 52.6 percent of his passes for 452 yards, two touchdowns and a 79.5 rating. And perhaps most importantly, the rookie quarterback did not throw an interception.
If Smith is their leader of the future, the Ravens have to like his level-headed approach to the game.
"Every play is important, and you have to treat it that way as a quarterback, and never take a play off," he said. "As a professional, that's the way it has to be every second of every day. Be as professional as you can be, and try to take that with you on the field.
"Nothing is promised. I don't care who you are," he added emphatically.
The Ravens saw Smith's poise and leadership ability when they picked him in the fifth round of the 2007 draft. The fact that 173 players were chosen before him understandably gave the Heisman Trophy winner from Ohio State a sizeable chip on his shoulder when he entered the NFL. But the neophyte quarterback already sounds like a veteran when reflecting on his debut season.
"At this level, it's, 'What have you done for me lately?' You show glimpses of greatness, but being young and not knowing the system, there are moments when you look like a freshman, too," Smith said. "But I had an understanding early on that there would be mistakes."
A born leader, Smith understands the role that comes with playing his position—regardless of where he's listed on the depth chart.
"You have to be able to step up and rise to the challenge," he said. "There are 44 other guys out there in pads that are counting on you. They're looking into your eyes and seeing what kind of player and what kind of man you're going to be."
The Ravens' new coaching regime could signal a change at quarterback in 2008, but it's too soon to tell how much Smith will be involved in Harbaugh's plans. Two things are certain, though: Smith earned the respect of his teammates late in the season, and he has as much upside as any young quarterback in the league.
"With me being older now and having a better understanding, I take it for what it is," said Smith, who went from awestruck rookie to patient signal-caller thanks to some valuable game experience. "Everything happens for a reason. I'm not trying to play football to become an incredible quarterback. I'm playing football because I love the game."
The Cleveland native grew up a Browns fan, but justifiably changed his allegiances when he became a Raven last April. "I still root for the Browns in the sense that I hope they do well until they play us, because if they're winning games and we beat them, that's even better for us," he said.
Off the field, Smith has many interests. He loves buying new shoes and has about 500 DVDs in his collection. Listing "Hoodlum," the Harlem Renaissance-era mobster flick starring Laurence Fishburne and Andy Garcia, as his favorite movie, Smith also enjoys the anonymity he can experience by being what he calls "just a regular dude" at the movie theater.
"It gives you a chance to blend in with the crowd," Smith said of his favorite off-field activity. "You put on your sweatpants and hoody, sit right in between two couples—because you know they aren't paying attention to you—and just blend in."
Smith may blend in at the movies, but that's hardly the case on the football field. He stands out because his ability to burn defenses with his legs makes him a dual-threat quarterback. And if the situation calls for it, the versatile Smith can get rid of the ball with his left hand because he's essentially ambidextrous.
"I eat with my left hand [and] write with my left hand. I throw with my right hand and golf right-handed," he said. "My mother said I've always been that way. I can throw pretty well left-handed."
As the quarterback situation in Baltimore comes into clearer focus this offseason, Smith plans to prepare relentlessly for his chance to lead the offense.
"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," he said.
While Smith continues to improve going into his second NFL season, he will rely on his two traits that have gotten him this far: confidence and passion.
"Confidence with me has never really been a problem because I don't have anything to prove to anybody," Smith said. "[It's] just the guys in this locker room and me getting better as a quarterback. What I bring to the table is somebody with an incredible passion for the game.
"[I've] definitely been put into a couple situations where passion has to show, and that's the kind of player I am."