Akili waits for return

8-27-01, 7:35 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Akili Smith thought the Bengals could have flipped a coin to decide the No. 1 quarterbacks job between Jon Kitna and Scott Mitchell.

The problem is, the coin came up heads for Kitna, tails for Mitchell, and Smith lost, too, because the franchise quarterback is now the injured No. 3 quarterback.

Instead of talking about his second NFL Opening Day start, the media suggested a "Slash," role for Smith in which he could make like Kordell Stewart and play a little quarterback, a little running back, and a little receiver.

Head coach Dick LeBeau wouldn't rule it out and Smith said he would do anything that's asked, such as splitting out as a receiver for the old double pass.

But it wasn't a day for even half gags Monday at Paul Brown Stadium.

"If things don't go well as far as the offense is concerned, I want to play," Smith said. "Right now, my main focus is getting my shoulder back together."

Smith didn't work for the 10th straight practice and doesn't expect to play in Thursday's pre-season finale against the Colts at PBS because of the mild tendinitis in his throwing shoulder that got inflamed on a hit nearly three weeks ago in Detroit.

Smith thought the quarterbacks race was fairly even except for that game

against the Lions, "when I just got hammered. Things didn't go well."

That night's injury in the Pontiac Silverdome (yes, where Ki-Jana Carter first went down) coincided with his slip in the derby. His five sacks, two fumbles and some mistakes with formation calls marked him down.

But Bengals President Mike Brown sees Smith's athleticism, size and rocket arm and continues to believe he could be a factor once he settles in with the new offense.

Brown warned the media Monday not "to count him out. . . We have no plans to move Akili. We have not given up on him. He's still a young quarterback and he'll get his chances."

The Bengals can't move Smith because they are anchored to his intoxicating measurables as well as his $10.8 million signing bonus that paralyzes the salary cap. Brown "regretfully," had to move fourth quarterback Scott Covington and released him Monday.

Some in and outside the locker room felt Covington played better than Smith in camp and were unhappy to see him leave. Brown wouldn't go that far, but count him as one of the people Covington impressed even though he didn't get to play in a pre-season game.

Brown knows Covington may be the next Jay Fiedler, a Bengals' training-camp casualty who has started elsewhere.

"We just didn't have the game time for him because of the other three," Brown said. "I wouldn't be surprised to see him go somewhere and be a successful NFL quarterback."

It was kind of an upside down day. A day when Smith, the inexperienced franchise quarterback who warred with the media last year, said mostly the right things. On a day that Mitchell, the consummate journeyman pro, wasn't ready just yet to say the right things.

Smith still thinks he can be successful. He still thinks he's going to get a shot this year at some point. He says, "I'm not frustrated at all.

"I'm going to sit and learn and make sure when it's my time I'm ready mentally and physically," Smith said.

Physicaly, trainer Paul Sparling said Smith's shoulder has undergone two negative MRIs the past three months, so he doesn't think there's a hidden problem deeper than tendinitis. He says Smith should be fine with treatment and rest and he should be ready for the regular-season opener in 13 days.

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