ST. LOUIS — Troy Smith's drama-filled run with the Ravens comes full circle tonight at Edward Jones Dome.
It was two years ago at this spot that an illness forced him out of the starting quarterback competition. Now, Smith is battling to remain on the team as the third-stringer.
In the preseason finale, the 2006 Heisman Trophy winner has a prime opportunity to prove to the Ravens -- and the rest of the NFL -- that he is a viable quarterback at this level. Smith is expected to start and play the entire game against the St. Louis Rams, according to a league source.
"I think all games, especially preseason games for quarterbacks that haven't had a lot of time in the regular season, are the biggest games of their lives. Whether they know it or not, they are," Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "Some guys think Michigan-Ohio State or Iowa-Illinois. That's big, but for some of these guys, this is the biggest game of their lives."
Of all the players on the Ravens' bubble, no one's situation is more intriguing than Smith's.
Some observers believe he is safe because his athleticism and knowledge of the system are assets. Others think Smith has to persuade the Ravens to give him a roster spot over the likes of linebacker Jason Phillips, wide receiver David Reed or nose tackle Brandon McKinney. And there's another group that wonders whether the Ravens are trying to showcase Smith to entice a trade.
So could this be Smith's last game with the Ravens?
"Troy's a good player," coach John Harbaugh said. "The thing we have to decide across the board is who are the best 53 players we have. But Troy is our third quarterback. Obviously, he's played very well in the preseason; I think he makes plays. He does bring a unique ability. He gets out of trouble and makes plays with his feet and with his [arm]. We've always liked Troy."
The Ravens haven't really given Smith a strong vote of confidence since selecting him in the fifth round of the 2007 draft.
After he started the final two games in 2007, the Ravens drafted a quarterback (Joe Flacco) only a few months later. And after Smith served as the backup the past two seasons, the Ravens signed a new one (Marc Bulger) to a $3.8 million contract. Smith's career has seemed to move backward instead of forward with the Ravens.
Team officials appeared willing to give up Smith this offseason, when the Ravens placed a fifth-round tender on him as a restricted free agent.
That meant it would require a team to give up only a fifth-round choice to grab Smith. But no one called.
Smith scoffed at the notion that this game -- his most extended action in three years -- is an audition for the Ravens or any other team.
"I'm not in this business to try to show anybody anything," Smith said. "As a person, as a man, I think once you get into vendettas with other people, then things don't happen the way that you want them to. As a quarterback and as a man, I know what I need to do and achieve, and I'm fine with that."
The biggest knock on Smith has been his accuracy. Because he has been able to run whenever there was no one immediately open, he hasn't been forced to stand in the pocket and make the tough throws in tight windows.
This summer, Smith has made strides as a pure passer. He's trying to stay ahead of NFL defenses, which will eventually make him beat them with his arm.
"You can be a scramble-around guy for a while, but you can only do it so long," Cameron said. "They're going to make you prove that you can execute the passing game from the pocket. That's where all of a sudden, some guys are running around this league doing great and then they fall off the face of the Earth. I like the fact that [Smith's] learning to play in the pocket and still has the ability to do things outside the pocket. He's learning how to stand in there and throw the ball with accuracy."
One of Smith's biggest strengths is his leadership. His confidence as a rookie instantly won over veterans. And he still has a strong core of supporters in the locker room.
"He has had time to grow, time to see the offense and time to become a true NFL quarterback even though people try to put in him in a box," said wide receiver Marcus Smith, who caught a touchdown pass from Smith in Saturday's preseason game. "He's evolved his game, and he's gotten better every year. He's a confident and fun quarterback. You're always having fun with him."
Smith's summer got off to a rocky start. He was inaccurate through most of training camp.
But Smith turned it around in the preseason, where he is 16-for-25 for 151 yards and one touchdown (a 93.9 passer rating). He has also rushed for 41 yards on 14 carries, scoring one touchdown.
Some players believe Smith would be a better quarterback if a team committed to him and gave him extended playing time. As Flacco's backup the past two seasons, Smith has thrown just eight passes.