1-16-02, 5:20 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Even though Jon Kitna finished the season with the two best passing days of his career, Akili Smith said Tuesday he hopes the Bengals' quarterback situation for next season isn't set in stone.
Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski assures Smith it isn't. The coaches haven't given anyone the job. Yet. But he also acknowledged Smith's torn hamstring is bound to put him behind because he'll miss the minicamp and all voluntary workouts.
And in his second season since coming over from the Steelers, Bratkowski is putting a huge emphasis on the voluntary workouts that typically begin in the middle of March. He says the only relevant offensive stats from this past season are a 6-10 record by a team that scored the fewest points in the NFL and it's not good enough.
"If we have players that don't show up, then that tells me that all this talk about getting better is just lip service and it just looks good as something to say in the newspaper," Bratkowski said. "If you're not here, it tells me you're not willing to make the commitment. Pittsburgh had 100 percent participation (in the offseason) and look where they are.
"We have to go into training camp beyond where we finished the last two games," said Bratkowski of his unit's 980-yard finale. "We have to make big strides in the offseason if we want to get where we want to be."
Smith surfaced Tuesday nearly a month to the day he tore his hamstring in his lone start of the season on Dec. 16 and 20 days after surgery re-attached the muscle to the bone. Even though he is still walking with a pronounced limp, he began his rehab at Paul Brown Stadium hoping to rebound from the "wasted year," he has branded 2001.
"Kitna finished real strong," Smith said, "and that pretty much started more controversy. That's the way things have been going around here. Hopefully, I'll get back in the race. In Kitna's eyes, he finished strong. He's thinking, 'The job should still be mine.' So there are two different outlooks on it. I just want an opportunity."
Smith still can't fathom how the team that took him with the third pick
in the draft sentenced him in just his third season to the No. 3 quarterback job that gave him virtually no practice snaps until Kitna hurt his finger Dec. 9. That led to Smith's only start before he got hurt on his third series.
"I don't know how (the Bengals) view it, but I've talked with my family, friends, my attorney and it was a wasted year," Smith said. "I had no reps and I was basically just writing plays on the sideline. You can't improve doing that. It's a major step backwards. I hope they haven't set anything in stone because I still think I should get an opportunity."
Bratkowski just doesn't know when Smith is going to get that chance.
"I don't think I can make any comment on how he fits into it until he can truly play the position," Bratkowski said. "When he can do all the things he has to do. Run, throw, sprint. Until then, you can't say there's a derby or a competition until we determine at what point he can compete for the job.
"Obviously, he's going to miss a lot of work with the receivers," Bratkowski said. "Work that Jon is going to get from the beginning. At some point, we may make a call on who has the job depending what happens in the draft and Akili's rehab."
Bratkowski said the Bengals will most likely get their third quarterback behind Kitna and Smith in the draft, but he could come anywhere between the second and last rounds.
Smith said he is shooting to be ready for the first day of training camp in a rehab he has been told will be difficult, but doable.
"I've been walking around the mall," Smith said, "but that's about it."
He says he'll play catch on one leg and watch plenty of tape, but it still won't make up for all the time he'll miss in March, April and May. Bratkowski made it quite clear before the offense broke for the year that they have to be here from the beginning in the offseason.
One hundred percent participation in March and April has been a problem in the past with the Bengals. It turned out that two of their top six wide receivers (Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh) were rookies who could participate after the draft for only three days because of NCAA rules. Another receiver, Darnay Scott, didn't feel comfortable on his rehabbing broken leg until training camp. They got good attendance from the other three receivers in Peter Warrick, Danny Farmer and Ron Dugans.
"The young guys definitely have to be here," Bratkowski said. He's still mystified how a team that scored at least 21 points four times in the season's first seven games couldn't break 13 in the next seven.
"I'm not sure that the early success didn't lead to some of the younger guys getting a false sense of security with the offense," Bratkowski said. "And I think we had some veterans who were so comfortable in the old system that they didn't realize how much energy was required to learn the new offense.
"We've got to make sure," Bratkowski said, "that we're way ahead where we are now going into training camp."