LONDON — Throwing off his wrong foot, his back nearly parallel to the field, Troy Smith heaved a pass Sunday night toward a receiver surrounded by Denver's Champ Bailey and Brian Dawkins, a duo with a combined 17 Pro Bowls between them.
Like so much of the San Francisco 49ers' season through seven games, Smith's decision, on the surface, looked horrendous. This time, though, something dramatically different happened on the way to disaster: The apparent gaffe was a game-changing play.
The unlikely 38-yard, fourth-quarter hook-up between Smith, a third-stringer a week ago, and tight end Delanie Walker, subbing for injured starter Vernon Davis, sparked the previously slumbering Niners, who awoke for a 24-16 win over the Broncos before a partisan San Francisco crowd of 83,941 at Wembley Stadium.
Niners coach Mike Singletary invoked Brett Favre's name when discussing Smith's recklessly brilliant prayer.
"Am I going to go in there and say &‘Hey, don't do that,'" Singletary said. "I don't think so. But I will say &‘Be careful.' But that's about it. The kid made a play."
At a perfect time.
Trailing 10-3 with less than 14 minutes left, Smith, a four-year veteran making his first start since his rookie year, connected with Walker down to the one-yard line. Two plays later, Smith ran a bootleg into the right corner to tie the game, a touchdown that kicked off a string of San Francisco highlights.
When it was over, the Niners (2-6) had scored 21 fourth-quarter points, more than they had managed in five of their first seven games. In addition, they had a flicker of postseason hope — closing to within 2? games of first-place Seattle in the NFC West — and a budding quarterback controversy.
In the second half, Smith (12 of 19, 196 yards), subbing for injured starter Alex Smith, completed 8 of 10 passes for 110 yards with a go-ahead 28-yard touchdown to Michael Crabtree. He didn't commit a turnover and finished with a 115.2 quarterback rating, a figure Alex Smith has topped twice in 50 career games.
Perhaps most significantly, he ran his record this season to 1-0 as the Niners' starter. Alex Smith's mark is 1-6.
On Wednesday, it was announced that Alex Smith was expected to miss two to three weeks with a separated non-throwing shoulder, meaning he could be available after this week's bye. Who will start when Alex Smith returns? In response, Singletary didn't utter the phrase "Alex Smith is our starting quarterback."
"We're going to continue to go forward with Troy Smith right now," Singletary said. "We're going into the bye week and as far as Alex Smith is concerned, it's a week-to-week deal. I'll wait and talk to our doctors, trainers, whatever. But we'll make those decisions when we need to."
Troy Smith's decision to heave the ball to Walker was borne out of a bond they'd formed during their week in England. Smith, in his eighth week with the Niners, took his first-ever reps with the first team about 100 hours before kickoff. With Davis missing two practices due to an ankle injury he aggravated during the game, Walker also ran with the first team and connected with the new starting quarterback.
"He is one of those guys that offensively helped me throughout the week game planning, my whole preparation," Smith said. "I told him, &‘if I get in a situation where I have to look for a guy, it's going to be you.'"