7-23-02, 4:45 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
For the first time in his career, Bengals quarterback Akili Smith goes to Georgetown College this week as a sidebar of Bengals training camp and he's not altogether pleased with the layout.
As a rookie in 1999, his 27-practice holdout dominated the news. So did his inheritance of the starting job in the 2000 camp. Last year, he shared an equal number of snaps with Jon Kitna and Scott Mitchell in a quarterback derby Smith finished third when he developed shoulder soreness after the second pre-season game.
But this year the bulk of the camp snaps are going to Kitna and free-agent pickup Gus Frerotte in an equal way. Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said there are some days Smith will share an equal amount of snaps with them. There will also be days Smith could get a little less than 20 percent of the work while Kitna and Frerotte split the remaining 80 percent.
"That's not pleasing to know," Smith said Tuesday from San Diego. "I don't think that's fair. It sounds like I'm back where I was last year as the third-string guy not getting any reps and not getting a chance to improve. If that's the case, maybe they should cut their losses and let me go after this year."
Head coach Dick LeBeau went out of his way at Tuesday's media luncheon at Paul Brown Stadium to say he hasn't given up on Smith and, "he may be our best quarterback, we just don't know." He also wants to see how Smith responds
to Friday's first practice, which will be his first action since he tore most of his hamstring off the bone seven months ago against the Jets.
And Smith is keeping a stiff upper lip, vowing to be ready when called. LeBeau praised him for the time he spent at PBS this offseason rehabbing the injury and studying the offense, which weren't always his strong suits during his first three seasons. And for the first time in his career, Smith is looking to complete two straight full training camps in the same offensive system.
"I can understand their thinking if they want to take it slowly because of the leg," said Smith, who expects to be medically cleared for the second time in a month on Wednesday. "I can run full speed and all that, but I don't really know how it will be. The first three or four practices will tell. I'm still going to get the four pre-season games to prove myself. I don't care if I'm playing with all rookies, just as long as I'm on the field."
Bratkowski feels badly for Smith as he heads into his fourth NFL season with nearly as many missed games because of injuries (11) as starts (16).
"It's been unfortunate. He's been challenged by forces greater than us," Bratkowski said. "Things have not gone the way he has wanted and this is going to be another one. The injury has been a setback because he missed all the spring drills and summer workouts. It's hard. He's going to have to fight to overcome it."
Bratkowski thinks Smith still has a shot. But with two guys ahead of him, he isn't sure how he'll get it.
"Something is going to have to happen where he'll get in there and somehow he'll end up as the second or first guy," Bratkowski said. "I don't know what it will be, but it can happen."
Smith continues to be perplexed at where the Bengals are putting him on the depth chart in correlation to his $10.8 million rookie signing bonus.
Smith was surprised when told that Bengals President Mike Brown said earlier this week that the 2002 season would go a long way in determining his future in Cincinnati.
"But how are they going to find out what I can do if I don't get the reps?" Smith asked. "It just seems like a waste of money to me. But that's up them. All I can do is show up, do my best when I get the chance, and go from there. I feel great. I know the system. I'm ready to go."
Bratkowski gives Kitna the camp edge over the newcomer Frerotte because of his knowledge of the system and receivers and what they can do in crunch time.
"Normally, you like to give the starter 65 percent of the snaps in training camp, the second guy gets whatever is left, and the third guy might get a few here and there," Bratkowski said. "We're talking about a decreased number of snaps for the starter. That won't be a big factor for Jon because he's already been through it for a year.
"If Gus was the starting quarterback right now, he'd be getting the benefit of those 65 percent of the snaps," Bratkowski said. "But he won't be getting all those practice snaps. It will slow down his progress. Is it something that can't be overcome? No. Gus is capable of doing it, but Jon has the advantage."
Last season, Kitna was named the starting quarterback after the third pre-season game. Bratkowski plans to follow the same pattern this year, allowing the starter to go through a dry run in the Aug. 29 pre-season finale against Atlanta at PBS and then giving him 10 days to prepare for the Sept. 8 opener at home against the Chargers.