Akili's world turns with options

11-9-01, 4:45 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Jon Kitna got his career jump-started with MVP numbers in the NFL Europe of 1997. Backup Scott Mitchell sharpened his emerging game by setting World League records five years before that. Could a spring fling in another land turn around the career of the Bengals No. 3 quarterback, Akili Smith?

"To be honest I just don't see myself going over there and taking myself away from this system," Smith says about his option of playing in NFL Europe. "If I could be assured I'd be in the same system, I'd really be interested. But I think I'd want to be around here for minicamp."

Bengals President Mike Brown, who reiterated Friday the team hasn't given up on the erstwhile franchise quarterback, says he's a fan of Smith getting more snaps. But the possibility he could be the backup quarterback if the club doesn't re-sign Mitchell has ramifications.

"I don't know that it's something we would rule out at this stage, but I think it's also premature to talk about right now," Brown said of a European trip. "I don't know if he'll be the backup or what, but I also don't know if we want our backup exposed to injury or to be away from camp that long."

If it sounds like Smith is going to be a Bengal next year, that's what he thinks. Brown said Smith's status is "an open issue," but the buzz suggests he'll be back and won't be offered to Houston's expansion draft.

"What I'm pretty much getting is they still want me here," Smith said. "Just by conversation with certain coaches. In my eyes, I'm not a backup. I don't want to be a backup. I don't think I'm a backup. I just have to go on if it's not my year, then maybe next year. It's all I can do."

League owners got word last week that NFL Europe is on for next

year. It's a league that would no doubt love to get a No. 3 draft choice such as Smith. If he went, he'd be Europe's highest drafted player since running back Lawrence Phillips.

Tampa Bay's Joe Hamilton, a seventh-round pick in 2000 who has indicated interest in going this year, is the more typical quarterback that tries Europe. It's the one position that seems to benefit playing in the league. Besides Kitna and Mitchell, other NFL Europe QB grads include Kurt Warner and Jay Fiedler.

Smith won't shut the door because he's been fairly vocal about his concern that he can't improve without playing. But he's also concerned about getting snaps with the team rather than elsewhere.

"That's a lot of football," Smith said. "You'd go right from there to training camp. If it was the same offense, I'd think about it. But right now, I'd have to say probably not."

Brown won't address the possibility of leaving Smith unprotected for Houston's expansion draft. It would be the Bengals one chance to rid themselves of Smith's count under the salary cap stemming from his $10.8 million signing bonus. The Bengals won't cut him after this season because that would be about a $5 million hit in the 2002 cap. But if the Texans take him, Houston absorbs the cap consequences for the rest of his contract.

But Brown isn't talking like a man ready to see Smith go.

"He isn't out of the picture here," Brown said. "He's just waiting for his opportunity. When it comes or how it comes, I can't tell you. When things will be decided is how well he does when gets there. It could be this year or next year. We haven't given up on him and no one should think we have."

THIS AND THAT: Jaguars RB Fred Taylor, who hasn't played in the last five weeks with a groin injury, blew off the media Friday after limited practices Wednesday and Thursday. Taylor didn't take the first few snaps of practice Friday, but it was unclear whether he or quarterback Mark Brunell (quad) got any work. Brunell is expected to play. Taylor is questionable, but Jag observers doubt he'll play and if he does, it won't be much. . . .

Bengals coach Dick LeBeau said it's not final, but he believes Neil Rackers is going to be Sunday's kicker while Jaret Holmes stays on the practice squad. If the Bengals keep both, another player has to get cut and as LeBeau said, "I want Neil to work through this and I don't want to put cut anyone. . .(but) I liked the way Jaret Holmes has kicked." . . .

Here's a perfect example why two kickers can't be active. At least this week. At the end of Friday's practice, cornerback Tom Carter re-aggravated

the sprained knee that kept him out of the last game. The Bengals plan to re-examine Carter Saturday morning and if he can't play, they may have to again activate rookie Kevin Kaesviharn from the practice squad. That's what the Bengals did the Saturday before the last game, when they cut linebacker Riall Johnson to make room and then re-signed Johnson after the game when Kaesviharn went back to the practice squad. . .

CB Robert Bean (hamstring), who missed the last game, is ready. But it's probably going to be a game-time decision whether Bean, Carter or Bo Jennings is the nickel cornerback. . .

LeBeau said DT Tony Williams, out the last three games and most of a fourth with a mid-foot sprain, looks ready to start. . .

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