12-5-02, 5:20 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Akili Smith is anxiously awaiting the Bengals' off-season changes because he feels they may decide if he's with the team next year.
And he does expect changes.
"If there aren't any major changes, something is wrong," Smith said Wednesday. "This is rock bottom. This is the lowest of the low. There has to be changes. I don't know what Mike (Brown) and them have in mind, but you have to make some changes."
The latest statements from the front office about continuity have shaken many pockets of a locker room that doesn't know how this underachieving season can go by without a response.
"I don't know what it has to be because I believe that players make plays and not coaches," said fullback Lorenzo Neal. "But look at it. We all deserve better. The Brown family, the coaches, the players, the fans. But look at it. You're losing your fan base, there is talk of boycotts and petitions. Something is wrong. I don't know what, but it's got to be fixed."
Smith doesn't expect changes on the field in the next four games. He'll be surprised if he or Joe Germaine get in a game and since he is still No. 3 this week, Smith thinks Jon Kitna is going to finish the season.
"The last I heard about the quarterback controversy, it was sink or swim with Kitna," Smith said. "I don't think I'm going in because I
still wouldn't be No. 3. I don't think there's going to be any changes the rest of the way. I don't want to go in there with just two days of snaps and then go in and play. It's not fair to me."
Smith is shocked that the Bengals want him back next season and believes it's only for salary cap reasons. But Brown has said he'll be back even though Smith is more cap friendly with a June 1 cut, when the remainder of his $3 million cap count is spread over two years.
"I'm not getting a fair shot around here," Smith said. "I'm anxious to see what major decisions are made in the offseason. With the coaches, myself. What's going on? What's going to be the final verdict?
"Every year we've got excuses why we lose," Smith said. "In my first year (1999), Carl Pickens was a cancer and I was late (to training camp). In my second year, it was Akili with the young receivers. Last year, 'Oh, we had to put in a new offense.' Every year there's an excuse. What's it going to be this year?"
SALTY WITHOUT PEPPERS: The Bengals miss Carolina rookie defensive end Julius Peppers and his 12 sacks because he starts serving his suspension for taking a dietary supplement not within league specifications. But the Panthers didn't get to third in the NFL in sacks per pass play without some other people. They have two linemen in end Mike Rucker and tackle Kris Jenkins who have more sacks (seven) than the five of Bengals leader Tony Williams. Plus, tackle Brentson Buckner returns from his own suspension with four sacks.
"It's certainly a big deal when you lose your team leader in sacks. It's like the Titans losing (DE) Jevon Kearse," said Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna. "You don't have that every-down threat, a guy that can change a game at his position on defense. At the same time, you don't ever take the Titans defense lightly, and you certainly can't take this defense lightly, because they have a lot of other guys nearing double digits in sacks. They're a young and fast defense, much like the Baltimore defense we just played, just a different scheme."
JUST THINK:** If wide receiver Chad Johnson had been doing all season what he's done in the last eight games, he would have been on pace to shatter Eddie Brown's club record of 1,273 receiving yards with 1,426. But there's always next year.
"I'll get 1,000, I'm not that far away," said Johnson, who still needs 209 yards in the last four games. "I'm just hoping to use it to take off for next year. Maybe 1,500 with a better touchdown ratio."
Johnson, already famous for his winning guarantees, offers assurances he'll get to 1,000, and the numbers back him up. If he hits his average of
nearly 66 yards per game, Johnson finishes with 1,055 and becomes the first Bengal since Darnay Scott in 1999 to catch 1,000 yards. If he does what he's done in the last eight games at 89.1 yards per game, he'll finish with 1,147, the most since Carl Pickens' 1,180 in 1996.
And that's after he caught just 78 yards in the first four games, his total last week against Baltimore that halted his streak of three 100-yard games.
"Even though I wasn't playing as much back then because of the rotation, I think back to all those opportunities I missed," Johnson said. "Against Tampa Bay (in the fourth game) I had some chances for a couple of long ones and it didn't happen. I think it has just came down to better technique for me."
His emergence has also been timed with Jon Kitna's first eight starts. But Johnson truly isn't enamored with the number 1,000.
"That's not an easy accomplishment, but an average NFL receiver ought to shoot for that," Johnson said. "To me, the key is to be consistent and improve your numbers every year."