Akili looks to erase '00 with points

9-26-02, 12:55 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

If his players are showing a lack of urgency, at least Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau isn't with the promotion of Akili Smith from No. 3 to Sunday's starting quarterback.

And the fact he refuses to put a time frame on the experiment shows LeBeau is looking for a quick fix. In fact, he's just looking.

"What I'm doing is looking for a combination that works," said LeBeau when asked Wednesday how long he'd go with Smith.

He has passed the word that the goal now is to be 3-3 by the bye. Bengals President Mike Brown has refused to talk about LeBeau's status, which is believed to be in the last year of a contract. But note that the bye week falls on Oct. 20. That's six years to the day of Dave Shula's last game as Bengals head coach in a 1-6 start, the only time Brown has fired a coach in midseason.

So plenty seems to be riding on the Smith decision. Those who saw him start, struggle, and fail in 11 starts as the Bengals quarterback in 2000 are convinced he's not the same guy and it's not the same circumstances.

"More humble," said right tackle Willie Anderson.

"It's a different system," said wide receiver Peter Warrick.

"I expect to see the guy who played against the Jets last year," said wide receiver Ron Dugans. "Determined. Confident running the ball. Confident passing the ball."

Wide receiver Chad Johnson wasn't here in 2000, but he was in the Georgia Dome Sunday night and he saw what the Falcons did and what the Bengals didn't do.

"Akili is like having a Michael Vick a little bit," said Johnson, who

played with Smith in the second half of the four preseason games. "I know he's not that super explosive, but what's the difference? Except he's right-handed. Going to have a little bit more mobility back there. It will be nice. He made stuff happen (in the preseason). Long third-down plays, scrambling out of the pocket, running for first downs, being able to drop back, read , read, read, nobody there and take off. That's nothing but a plus."

Anderson had to agree with a buddy he spoke with the other day. Why not Smith?

"It was like we were getting him ready to play more than the first two guys," said Anderson of the limited work Gus Frerotte and Jon Kitna got in the preseason games. "He took most of the snaps. I don't think (playing in the second half mostly with players who got cut) matters. What matters is getting snaps."

Anderson would like to see Smith do what Vick did Sunday night. Don't worry about getting 30 to 40 yards in a chunk. Vick's longest run was 21 yards and his longest pass was 20. Smith has a gun, and while he's not as fast as Vick, his athleticism is in the mold of the new-age QB.

"If it's not there, run it for seven and it's second-and-three," Anderson said.

Whether the results are going to be the same as 2000 a 2-9 record as the AFC's worst passer with three touchdowns, six interceptions, less than five yards per pass remains to be seen. But it's not the same deal.

"He now knows the importance of the quarterback position," Anderson said. "I think before he didn't understand the importance of it, what it meant to be a starting quarterback in the NFL.

"I think he knows the importance of a quarterback leading a team," Anderson said. "He didn't have anybody telling him. He had nobody showing him."

Anderson remembers the first meeting of minicamp, 2000, when head coach Bruce Coslet fixed his eyes on Smith and said, "We're only going to go as far as he takes us." Anderson thinks that was an unfair burden on a second-year quarterback who came out of the 1999 draft.

"The head coach spoiled him a little bit," Anderson said. "It wasn't his fault. If the coach hadn't spoiled him, things could have been different.

"He should have been groomed better," Anderson said. "You can't tell a guy that. They didn't tell Donovan McNabb he's got to (carry his team). Tim Couch wasn't told that. Culpepper definitely wasn't told that, and look at where those guys went. It's crazy. He basically had to groom himself."

Smith also had little around him when it came to pass protection from his blind side. As much as Richmond Webb has struggled this season at left tackle, they still feel he's a big upgrade over Rod Jones, a huge factor in Smith's 14 fumbles in 2000.

And when he took the first snap of the 2000 season, Smith did it with rookies Peter Warrick and Ron Dugans as his starting wide receivers. When Darnay Scott broke his leg in training camp, the Bengals failed to add a veteran receiver and they surrounded him with five wideouts with a total of 15 career NFL catches.

On Sunday, the five active receivers go in with 525 pro catches. Yes, they are also struggling, but Dugans sees a big difference over 2000.

"We didn't have any vets around," Dugans said. "We had different coaches telling us different things. It's a big difference. I told him that he's got everything now. There's no excuses. I'll be there for him."

Warrick thinks the current system of offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski is a better fit than the one Coslet crafted for him two years ago. A closer scheme to the one Smith used to throw 45 touchdown passes in 19 games at Oregon, Warrick thinks Smith is more comfortable reading the coverages and moving out of the pocket.

"He's light years ahead of where he was then," said receivers coach Steve Mooshagian. "He's got a better feel in this system. I think he fought the old system a little bit just because it was a little unfamiliar. I think he's embraced this one because it's similar to what he had when he was successful and that always brings out the best in you."

Anderson has been thinking about the Jeff Blake days lately, and he can relate some things to Smith. Anderson was a rookie when Blake, another quarterback who went from No. 3 to No. 1 in a week, long-bombed the Bengals to an 8-8 season in 1996. And although '99 was 4-12 dismal, Blake had a better season than any Bengals quarterback since.

Anderson saw Coslet try to have Smith do the same 1-2-3-4 progressions in the pocket that Blake did, "but you can't tell a college kid to do that. . .I think that hampered him by not being able to look one, two, maybe three, and throw it away or run it."

When Blake got benched in 1997 and 1998, Anderson noticed how he stayed in shape, as if he knew he would get called on again. And he has seen Smith run on the underwater treadmill, do some extra lifting and getting in some pushups and situps, "staying in game shape."

So what else is new for Anderson? Since Blake was benched in favor of Boomer Esiason in 1997, to Kitna replacing Frerotte in the second quarter Sunday night, to Smith getting the nod again, this is the ninth quarterback change because of performance.

"We need, other than Corey Dillon, other players to step up and make plays," Anderson said.

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