4-1-02, 12:45 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
All winter long, he has heard the names.
Drew Bledsoe. Trent Dilfer. Elvis Grbac. Chris Chandler. Jon Kitna. (Did someone really say Jeff Blake?) He has heard every name, it seems, but Akili Smith. Will it finally help him make a name for himself?
"I don't know what's going on or what they're thinking," Smith said Easter weekend from San Diego. "All I hope is that they're not set in stone with Kitna. That it's just not going to be Kitna, Kitna, Kitna in training camp. Nothing against Kit. He's a good guy. All I'm looking for is those chances in the pre-season games. But this is the way I like it. No one is talking about me. That's fine. I've done well in those situations in the past."
Smith has been pretty much forgotten since he tore most of his hamstring off the bone on the third series of his only start of last season and Kitna tore up the yards in the last two games. He tries to assert himself this week when he arrives at Paul Brown Stadium for his off-season program that will be spent more in the classroom than on the field as his injury heals.
But Smith did have some memorable things to say as heads into his fourth year, claiming he is a month ahead in his rehab from Dec. 26 hamstring surgery.
He believes he won't be back in Cincinnati next year if this season is like the others, in which he has thrown just three touchdown passes in his last 349 attempts. He can't understand why the Bengals are considering drafting a quarterback and he fires back at criticism from Scott Mitchell.
_ On the 2002 season: "If it doesn't happen this year, I would
think it's all over (with the Bengals). But I still think I've got the support of people around there. I think (Bengals President) Mike Brown is in my corner."
On the buzz the Bengals could take a quarterback fairly early in this month's NFL Draft: "A rookie's not the answer. He's not going to be able to come in here and do anything in his first year. I went through that. I don't understand why they would draft me so high and then take another guy so soon. Then why did they draft me?"
_ On Mitchell's anger at Smith's promotion over him to No. 2 quarterback the same week Smith ripped the team following the 18-0 loss in Cleveland Nov. 25: "He went in there and threw three interceptions (against Cleveland) and I had sat all year at No. 3 getting no reps in practice. My only point is that people keep telling me I need the work and the reps and I hardly got any of that for most of the year in practice. . .That's one thing I haven't done. I haven't thrown a lot of (12 career) interceptions."
Smith knows the biggest knock on him is the million-dollar-arm-10-cent-head tag. Make that $10.8 million-arm. They say he's a mess once he breaks the huddle. Even after he led the point-hungry Bengals to a game-opening touchdown on a 20-play drive last Dec. 16 against the Jets in his only start of the season there were whispers he still botched some pass protection calls and that he ran out of the pocket too quickly.
But Smith wonders if the criticism takes into account that he's had two offenses in his three seasons. And that when the offense that suits him arrived last year, he never really got a chance to run it as the No. 3 quarterback.
"I think it's really going to help that this is the second year in the system I had in college," Smith said. "I like it. I did well in it. It fits me. It's the number system (for the pass routes) and I'm comfortable with it. I just need the reps."
The problem is, he's probably not going to get any snaps this spring. Smith vows he'll be ready July 26 for the first practice of training camp, but he's expected to miss the four practices of the May 3-6 minicamp and the following 14 voluntary sessions.
Which is why he says he's going to be tethered to offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski the next two months. Smith thinks he'll be able to play some casual catch with his receivers this week, but he won't be able to drop back and throw. But he plans to drop by Bratkowski's office plenty.
"Where ever Brat goes, I'll go," Smith said. "I'm going to be hanging on his every word. It looks like I'll be in the classroom a lot more because I won't be able to do some physical stuff early."
A rueful Smith thinks back to Dec 16 and wonders. The Bengals, who scored just three touchdowns in the first quarter all year, came out of the box with Smith looking sharp and quick against the Jets. The key play? A big third-down throw to tight end Kirk McMullen in the red zone when Smith looked off his primary receiver.
"To be able to put together a drive like that against a team that could have gone to the playoffs has done a lot for my confidence," Smith said. "I really needed that. I really think if I hadn't got hurt, we would have won. I think back to that second series and if Pete (Warrick) could have held on to a pass over the middle, then what would have happened?"
Smith knows what has to happen in Bengaldom. Now or never.
"I'm ready to get there and start working," Smith said. "Whatever Brat and (trainer) Paul Sparling want me to do, I'm ready to do whatever they ask me to do."