9-27-01, 5:15 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Akili Smith goes home Sunday to San Diego not as the No. 3 pick in the 1999 NFL Draft, but as the Bengals' No. 3 quarterback and he has to keep telling people he's fine.
"My family keeps asking me how I'm doing and I keep telling them, 'Mom, Dad, I'm doing great.' This is the most I've been at peace with myself since I've been in the the league," Smith said before Thursday's practice. "People wouldn't understand that, but it is. It's hard to describe, but I can sleep at night."
Sleep has been hard to come by for Smith ever since the Bengals anointed him the savior two years ago.
But after losing a training camp derby to Jon Kitna and Scott Mitchell with the help of shoulder tendinitis and then watching Kitna lead the Bengals to a 2-0 start this year, Smith has felt the world launch off his shoulders.
"I've got a lot of off-field distractions that are declining at a rapid pace," Smith said. "It's not having the pressure of being the Cincinnati Bengals quarterback and having the pressure of turning around the organization. A lot of that focus isn't on me anymore because we're winning and I'm at peace with myself."
Ray Smith, Akili's father, recalled the week the Bengals drafted his son how hard it was for him to return home when he gave up playing pro baseball and how the locals whispered, "The great Akili Smith had failed."
But Smith, 26, isn't giving up the NFL. He says this won't be the last time he goes to Qualcomm Stadium with a team. Or the "Murph," as he calls it for the old name of Jack Murphy Stadium.
"That's not what making it in baseball taught me," Akili Smith said. "I can walk home. A lot of people in the
league have gone home before and weren't playing and weren't starting. You just have to deal with it. Hold your head high and continue to get through it and deal with it and that's what I'm doing."
Smith insists he's not a backup quarterback and, yes, he has thought about the expansion Houston Texans and how their offensive coordinator, Chris Palmer, became a big fan of his when Palmer was the Browns head coach.
"I don't really know what the organization has planned for me," Smith said. "But whether it's in Cincinnati or some place else, I just have to be ready. I've been saying it all year. It's a long season. Right now, it depends on how Kit plays because he's in the driver's seat and he's playing well, so I don't know what their plans are."
Bengals President Mike Brown just assumes that Smith will get another shot here somewhere down the road, yet he admitted Thursday with Kitna at 2-0 and a 94 passing rating, "Jon is playing extremely well and the way he's going is the way it's going to be."
But Brown also thinks, "it will be interesting," when Smith gets another chance to play.
"Maybe this is what he needed," Brown said. "There are a lot of quarterbacks who are pretty good who weren't pretty good when they took their first snap."
Although he's getting few snaps, Smith thinks he's playing better because he's relaxed, which is allowing him to see more of the field. He still thinks it is the sore shoulder that did him in instead of his play. Smith led the Bengals to a tying drive in the fourth quarter of the pre-season opener and then hurt his shoulder in the next game when he got sacked four times against the Lions and fumbled twice.
"I'm not angry. The only person I could be angry at is me," Smith said. "I'm the one that got hurt with the bum shoulder and wasn't able to compete."
Smith, "Parade," All-American at Lincoln High School, has never played football at Qualcomm. But the hometown Padres did give him a baseball tryout in the park.
"The Padres said they were going to draft me in the ninth round," Smith said. "But the Pirates took me in the seventh."