BY GEOFF HOBSON
Akili Smith now knows it's not him against the Browns. Or Tim Couch. Or eight men in a box Or free safeties over the top. Not anymore.
When he returns to the scene of his first-and-only 60-minute victory as a starting NFL quarterback Sunday in Cleveland, it's Akili Smith vs. Akili Smith.
"I've got to let the game come to me because right now I'm trying to go get the game," Smith said Thursday after a rare fun practice for him.
"I'm the type of guy, when you're the worst-rated quarterback in the league you want to prove something," Smith said. "That's just my mentality. Every Sunday I try to prove I'm not the worst quarterback in the league and it hurts myself, it hurts my teammates, it hurts all that. What I have to do is relax and play ball. Like I did in Pop Warner. Just play."
Smith fervently believes he's close. So close: "If I'm making serious mistakes, that's one thing. But I'm barely missing on a lot of stuff."
He hasn't missed the fact that the games against Cleveland have become a sort of defining personal line in the sand. You don't have to tell him he's gone nine starts without duplicating what he did to the Dawg Pound 381 days ago.
Which was culminating his first NFL start with a victorious two-minute drill.
Since he lofted that winning pass to Carl Pickens, he's thrown two touchdown passes and participated in five touchdown drives during 96 possessions. . . .
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His other game against the Browns turned out to be more defining. In this year's opener on Sept. 10, he admitted he was too tense and too jacked up as the Bengals lost, 24-7. He hit just 15 of 43 passes and his career-high 250 yards was marred by brutal inaccuracy.
Ever since that day, only the Draft Pick From Hades, Ryan Leaf, is keeping Smith out of the NFL basement in passer rating. But he knows he's last in completion percentage (43.4) and yards per pass (4.8) and only Leaf and the unimmortal Kent Graham have fewer touchdown passes because they have one.
No one was happier with the Bengals first win last Sunday. But Smith still felt empty, "like I didn't contribute," on 2 of 9 passing for 34 yards.
"Every quarterback has to have that 300-yard day," Smith said. "The most I've had is 250 in the loss to Cleveland, so maybe this will be the restart of that. I've got to go back to just having fun and I had fun in practice today."
There are no secrets here. Smith knows he has to get rid of the ball sooner. He knows he had to leave last week's game on the second play of the second half because the hit on his neck was possible because he didn't throw the ball.
Rookie receiver Peter Warrick is offering some advice. He's fighting the same demons.
"I hear people say Akili's a bad quarterback and it's just not so," Warrick said. "He's a great quarterback, but we're young. He's putting a lot of pressure on himself. It's got to be fun. That's why we play."
Smith knows there are a lot of eyes on him this week. If the Bengals can run the ball on Cleveland half as well as they did on the Broncos (but that doesn't mean they have to rush for 203.5 yards) he knows he should complete some big passes.
He has said himself this isn't the same running game or offensive line that struggled in that first Browns' game. Smith got sacked seven times by the Browns. He's been dumped 15 times in the six games since and he blames himself for many of them.
"I'm just waiting for it to click," Smith said. "I know it's close. I just don't know why it hasn't happened yet. I study hard. I go out on the field and make all the checks."
But he knows the biggest matchup in this one isn't Bengals left tackle John Jackson against Browns end Keith McKenzie. Or Bengals running back Corey Dillon on Browns strong safety Marquis Smith. Or Bengals coach Dick LeBeau vs. Browns coach Chris Palmer.
"I've got to have fun again," Smith said.