As Akili goes, so go Bengals

BY GEOFF HOBSON <>

Quarterback Akili Smith is supposed to be the foundation of the franchise.

But his dismal performance Sunday in the 23-14 loss to the Titans shook the foundation of the franchise. After Smith's first nine NFL starts, the Bengals still aren't sure they've found a franchise quarterback.

Yet on Monday, head coach Dick LeBeau all but ruled out turning to backup Scott Mitchell to relieve Smith for a series or a game. And Bengals President Mike Brown said the club still believes Smith can establish himself.

"It's still an open question with Akili," Brown admitted Monday. "He's got to get more accomplished than what's gone on the last few weeks. He's accurate enough in practice. I tend to think why he is inaccurate in games has more do with just nerves and settling down than anything else."

LeBeau said, "We're willing to meet that fight and make that commitment," to the growing pains of a young quarterback.

And from San Diego, the man who knows Smith best, father Ray Smith, said Sunday's night phone conversation with his son was about as down as he's ever heard him.

"But he's still upbeat and thinks it's going to happen," Ray Smith said. "It's just taking longer than he thought and he's frustrated. He's saying, 'I don't know what else to do because I've tried everything and it still doesn't happen.'"

The Bengals eschewed nine draft choices to take Smith with the third pick in the '99 NFL Draft, largely because of his laser accuracy. But on Monday morning, Smith was dead last in the NFL in completion percentage ( 43.8 percent), yards per pass (4.82) and passing rating of current starting quarterbacks.

"It's easy to get frustrated with young quarterbacks," Brown said before invoking the name of Steelers Hall-of-Famer Terry Bradshaw. "I remember (Steelers coach) Chuck Noll in Pittsburgh saying after three or four years that Bradshaw couldn't figure it out and was going to move on. But Bradshaw did figure it out, and for every young quarterback who makes it right away, there's twice as many who develop slower." . . .

There are some disturbing signs. Of his 23 passes Sunday, seven were either thrown inaccurately or not to an open rec eiver. And Tennessee's one sack came because he held the ball too long.

There are those inside the club who think Smith is hurrying his throws and not setting his feet in an effort to get the ball away quickly.

"We had pass protection enough in this last game," Brown said. "If you look at it, quite honestly, our pass protection was better than (Tennessee's), but we didn't make anything out of it."

More unsettling numbers than Smith's 10-of-23, 85-yard passing day on Sunday? Since Smith won his debut in Cleveland last year with two touchdown passes, he's lost his last eight starts while throwing two touchdowns and eight interceptions.

"Does that mean we'll stay with him indefinitely?" Brown asked rhetorically. "No. But we think Akili will be the guy and we're going to give him every opportunity."

Mitchell, an 11-year veteran who has a 30-36 career record as a starter along with three playoff berths, said he thinks he can help the Bengals in any capacity. But he's not going to get in the way of Smith's development. . . .

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"I can understand, appreciate and I'm certainly sensitive to being patient with a young quarterback," said Mitchell, who threw three passes in his first three years sitting behind Dan Marino in Miami. He knows things are tougher on a rookie quarterback with three rookie receivers.

"It helped me that I was able to sit back and watch, but it's different for different guys," Mitchell said. "Some learn by watching, some learn by practicing, some can only learn by doing it in a game and for some it might be a combination of all three.

"I'm sure things would be a little different if there was a rookie quarterback with veteran receivers, or a veteran quarterback with rookie receivers," Mitchell said. "But I'm not surprised by this and I'm here to do what I can to help."

The 1-8 start is taking a toll on the once sunny, optimistic Smith. He walked out on the media after Sunday's game and met reporters in a short, terse session Monday.

If anyone knows what makes the son tick, it's the father who has devoted his life to making sure his son gets this shot.

"He just doesn't understand why he can't get the ball there," Ray Smith said. "He said the receivers were open, he just couldn't complete the passes and he doesn't know why. Akili tends to put it all on himself and tries to do it all by himself and that's what it sounds like he's trying to do."

He does have guys trying to help him, but rookie receivers Peter Warrick and Ron Dugans flashed their frustration during the game.

"I told (Warrick), 'Let's keep things going and stay together,'" Smith said. "And he said, 'I'm trying,' and I said, 'I'm trying, too.' It's tough when you sit here 0-5 and every game except Baltimore we had an opportunity to win."

Smith said the Tennessee blitz forced him to throw short several times after a sight adjustment at the line of scrimmage on third down. They were passes too short to make a first down.

"It was a combination of everything," Smith said. "When they were open, I missed them. Sometimes in tough coverage I tried to put the ball in there where you've got to make a play on the ball and sometimes you make a play and sometimes you don't make a play. I think everybody just needs to stay together and we can get this thing figured out."

LeBeau emphasized his team has improved from the first three games, when the Bengals scored seven points, to the last two games, when they have scored 30. But he also knows the offense is struggling.

"At the National Football League level, there's always going to be people open," LeBeau said. A lot of times, the play that's called, the progression of the read, doesn't take the quarterback to that area of the field. But were their places to throw the ball? Yeah, there were."

Ray Smith and his son are down. But not out.

"He still thinks," Ray Smith said, "all it's going to take to get everything started is one win.''

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