Akili back in the mix

11-26-01, 5:10 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Dick LeBeau and Mike Brown have been saying all season they haven't given up on Akili Smith and it looked like Monday that was more than rhetoric for the benefit of the erstwhile franchise quarterback.

LeBeau could be on the verge of promoting Smith from No. 3 to Jon Kitna's backup in the wake of Sunday's 18-0 loss in Cleveland.

When asked if it made more sense to find out for sure if Smith can be a No. 1 quarterback as he nears the end of his third NFL season instead of going with veteran Scott Mitchell at backup, LeBeau indicated the club is considering such options.

"That's a possibility," said LeBeau of Smith being named the backup, but he won't divulge specific personnel changes until after meeting with players Tuesday.

Smith has openly wondered recently why the Bengals are keeping him around if they aren't developing him even with some practice snaps. He says he has, "cleaned up my act off the field," and feels he is more mature than last year. Although some club officials publicly questioned Smith's study habits this past training camp, LeBeau said Monday he has been pleased with Smith's demeanor, attitude and technique.

With the playoffs slipping away, the Bengals may try to get a final reading on Smith before Houston's expansion draft in the next few months.

"Yes, he does (have a chance a being named backup)," LeBeau said. " I'm taking a look at that. . . We're looking at things everywhere. We want to get out of this slide."

Which would put Mitchell to No. 3 after he threw nearly as many completions (four) as interceptions (three) in relief of Kitna Sunday. Mitchell and Smith have taken very few team snaps with the offense since Kitna was named the starter after their training camp derby. They took no team snaps during the week of preparation for Sunday's game.

"If I'm the guy who is starting, I'm going to want (all the snaps), too," Mitchell said. "I know you're trying to

get a guy ready to play and you want to give that guy the snaps. Unfortunately, someone has to suffer from it."

Still, Mitchell, who led the Bengals to a 2-2 finish when LeBeau benched Smith last season, is extremely disappointed with his 3.5 passer rating against the Browns. At 33 and a free-agent at the end of the season, Mitchell knows the Bengals still have a lot of money wrapped up in Smith.

"What's the point?" Mitchell asked of his appearance that was followed by Smith's curious stint in the game's final 1:13.

"The point was," Mitchell said, "we were struggling offensively and he felt it would give us a spark. From my perspective, I was disappointed I had the chance to help the team and I didn't get it done. I know I'm capable of doing it."

Mitchell thought his preparation wasn't reflected in his play and said, "maybe I'm deceiving myself a little bit that I think I can just come in cold and light the world on fire. Maybe it's not enough. Maybe I have to evaluate how I'm preparing."

Although Smith isn't as athletic as AFC Central rivals Kordell Stewart and Steve McNair, his mobility gives the Bengals a dimension they don't have with Kitna or Mitchell. That was driven home when Mitchell got dumped for a nine-yard loss on Sunday's fourth-and-goal bootleg.

With 1:13 left, LeBeau thought he could get Smith "six or seven throws," in a hurry-up drill, but that got blown up with a botched shot-gun snap for a 22-yard loss.

"He's a very impressive athlete," LeBeau said of Smith. "He's got the size, the speed, the arm strength. We think he has a future in the National Football League. And we're just trying to bring him along in that fashion."

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