Akili wonders about return

11-20-02, 6:15 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Akili Smith has taken note of Jon Kitna's play and sees no reason why he should return to Cincinnati next season with the starting quarterback playing at such a level.

"Jon's playing great. All he has to do is just cut down on his interceptions and when he does, he's got this offense rolling," said Smith before Wednesday's practice. "It makes me expendable. Why would you have me back again?

"I've said this before," Smith said. "I want to be a starter in this league. I don't want to be a backup. I'm happy for Jon. If he keeps playing like this, that's another year of me sitting on the bench."

Bengals President Mike Brown has said Kitna and Smith would return in '03 and both are under contract for the next two seasons. On Wednesday, Brown said he doesn't want to delve deeply into issues of the future with six games left, and head coach Dick LeBeau confirmed Wednesday he hasn't discussed his status for next year with his boss.

"One week at a time," LeBeau said.

But Smith and Kitna do have issues. Kitna is within fractions of an 80-percent play-time clause that would pay him more than $1 million next year. And Smith is just as uncomfortable with the talk he could be put back into action this season even though he's been the No. 3 quarterback since his one start against

Tampa Bay back on Sept. 29.

"It's obvious the coaches want Gus (Frerotte) two and Mike wants me at No. 2. I know that already," Smith said. "I don't think it would be fair to me to try and find out about me if I'm stuck at No. 3 not doing anything. That means you expect me to come out Wednesday and Thursday, which is probably the fastest (practice) tempo we get and then play on Sunday after sitting since Tampa and get ready for an opponent. You can't do all that."

Smith says it makes financial sense for the club to keep him for the final two years of his deal in '03 and '04 at minimum salary and not take a hit under the salary cap because of his $10.8 million signing bonus stemming from his selection as the third pick in the 1999 NFL Draft.

If the Bengals cut him before June 1, 2003, it would count $3.4 million against the '03 cap. If they cut him after June 1, '03, it would count $1.85 million in '03 and $1.54 million in '04.

"But I don't want to just sit here for six years, for my whole career, just sitting and doing nothing," Smith said. "With Jon playing well, you could keep (practice squad quarterback) Joe Germaine and draft another guy and develop it that way. I just want to get a chance to start."

Smith has made just two starts in the past two seasons and got hurt on the third series in one of them. He's 3-14 as a starter and against the Buccaneers he was 12 of 33 for 117 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception, in a 35-7 loss.

Of course, Tampa Bay has been doing that to most everybody. The Bucs are 8-2 with the NFL's No. 1 total defense, which is ranked first against the pass.

This week's game against the Steelers is two days shy of two years to the day Smith threw his last TD pass, a five-yarder to Peter Warrick in Pittsburgh's 48-28 win at Paul Brown Stadium.

Brown said Monday that it would be difficult for Kitna to lose his job if he plays at this rate. In his six starts this season, Kitna's completion percentage of 69.3 is 16 points higher than last year's effort. Smith's career completion percentage is 46.6.

"I think we're just executing better as an offense. I'm not forcing it as much as I did last year," said Kitna at his weekly Wednesday news conference. "The reason I didn't last year was a product of a lot of different things. The main reason (for the success this season) is we're just executing better as an offense. Guys are catching the ball and they're in the right spot. We're hitting our hot routes and I'm not having to throw the ball away a lot because our offensive line is playing very well. That's been the biggest factor."

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