11-21-01, 11:50 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
On Sunday, Akili Smith returns to Cleveland, scene of his first, greatest and only NFL moment.
Two years, one month, and 15 days after his touchdown pass on the last play of his first NFL start beat the Browns, he comes back as a confused No. 3 quarterback.
Yet, he is certain about a few things. He thinks it's the last time he'll be in Cleveland Stadium as a Cincinnati Bengal. And he thinks when the Bengals made him the third pick in the '99 draft, it just wasn't the right fit.
"For the simple fact that this organization had been down for so long that they didn't have time to develop me," said Smith as he walked to Wednesday's practice. "They need to win now. They went out and got two guys who had been to the playoffs and there was no time to develop a young quarterback."
All of this always comes up during Cleveland week. It was Smith's big game against the team that chose Tim Couch over him at No. 1. Now the other quarterbacks picked in that first round with Smith _ Couch (33), Donovan McNabb (45), Daunte Culpepper (43), Cade McNown (16)_ have nearly as many touchdown passes (137) as Smith has completions (198). Smith has thrown just three more touchdown passes since that winning fling in Cleveland.
Smith has drawn praise from the owner and the head coach on how he has handled his role behind Jon Kitna and Scott Mitchell. But Smith still feels lost.
"Nobody is talking to me. I don't quite understand what's going on," he said. "How am I going to get better?
I'm getting no reps. I'm getting no looks. Nobody is saying anything to me. I take that to mean it's my last year as a Bengal. I'll be surprised if I'm back."
But Bengals President Mike Brown insisted Wednesday he believes Smith will get another chance in Cincinnati to prove he really is a franchise quarterback.
Brown indicated Smith could re-surface as soon as this season.
"We aren't going to start developing players while we still have an opportunity to be in the race for the playoffs. We're not out of that race," Brown said. "If the time comes that we don't have a chance to get to the playoffs, then we'll think about putting guys in strategically to see how they are doing and work with them for the future. But that's not now."
Still, Brown doesn't view Smith as a young , developmental quarterback: "I view him as a guy who has been here almost three years and when he gets his shot, he's going to have to go in there and do well."
Head coach Dick LeBeau made it clear Wednesday he's not thinking about removing Kitna as the starter. What isn't as clear is if he does make a switch, why would he go with the 33-year-old Mitchell if he might not return next year and leave Smith on the bench if he is going to be back.
"It's tough to answer a hypothetical question like that," LeBeau said. "I'm not thinking of making a change, but I'd go with the guy who gives us the best chance to win the game that day. If it was me and I thought I could get us an extra point, I would. I think Akili's done a great job, I would like to see him play football."
Despite assurances from management, Smith just doesn't see much room for him to play football in Cincinnati. He wonders about being put on the expansion list, where the Bengals could dump his salary cap hit on the new Texans.
The Bengals won't cut Smith before June 1, 2002, because that would be about a $5 million hit and probably not after June 1 because that would still count well over $3 million for the '02 cap.
"I don't see myself as a backup," Smith said. "I'm a starter."