As QB derby turns

8-19-02, 6:45 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ On the eve of training camp, Bengals President Mike Brown said Akili Smith's play this year would determine if he returned to the club next year.

Based on his solid play in the first two pre-season games, Brown feels the question has been answered and believes he has merited a longer look in Cincinnati. And although the club has discussed re-negotiating the deal with his agents, Brown said Smith's six-year contract that is a myriad of escalators making him a rich man if he hits certain milestones isn't a factor in the competition on the field.

And while taking Smith out of the current starting mix Monday, offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski raved about his progress and said he has put himself in position as a possible backup or even No. 1 quarterback who can win.

But like Smith himself, Brown isn't sure what the future holds.

"I don't have a crystal ball," Brown said Monday. "I don't know where he'll be or what he'll be doing. It could be with us as a backup, or as a starter, or it could be elsewhere. But I do know he has played well and gives us something the other two guys don't have with his ability to move."

Just another day in the Bengals' soap-opera-ish quarterback derby that has droned on since the Boomer Esiason episode in January of 1998 when the Monday Night TV booth came between them.

Jon Kitna, who is getting the start Saturday night against the Saints, had an uncharacteristic brusque, 'No comment," after Monday's practice when asked about the assignment. It's apparently not the first time this year the quarterbacks have found out who is playing through the media.

"I haven't been told that so I'm not going to discuss it," Kitna said politely later. "I'm not going to

comment on anything I have no control over."

Smith admitted he believes he is showcasing himself for the other 31 teams in the NFL and wonders if there could be a trade in the offing if he has no chance getting past Kitna or Gus Frerotte. But he also said he's prepared to see how the ball bounces here.

"This could be my break-out year," Smith said. "I don't know."

What Brown knows is that the contract Smith signed after the Bengals took him with the third pick in the 1999 NFL Draft has no bearing on the competition. On top of his $10.8 million bonus, Smith has minimum salaries for this season and the next two years, with millions of dollars in salary tied to individual and team performance.

The Bengals' salary cap structure has undergone massive changes since that contract signed three years ago this week. They have signed two free-agent quarterbacks since in Kitna and Frerotte, but Brown said Monday the club could absorb the financial ramifications under the salary cap if Smith plays this year.

"That doesn't mean (the contract) is designed the way we wish, but there are others that are that way, too," Brown said. "This will be decided on the field and we'll see what happens."

The club says, "There are ways to shape (the contract) to help him and help us and if that happens, great, and if it doesn't happen, that's great too. The coaches are wholly unaware of it."

On Monday, Bratkowski took Smith out of the mix mainly because of the serious hamstring injury Smith suffered last Dec. 16 in his lone 2001 start. After the Dec. 26 surgery, Smith didn't take a snap with the team until last month's first day of training camp.

"He's a little behind with the physical part and the mental part," Bratkowski said. "He missed all that time. He has done a great job to this point and I'm very excited about his progress.

"Right now, it's best for the team at this point for it to be Gus or Jon," Bratkowski said. "But the beautiful thing is we have three quarterbacks we can go with in the event there is a catastrophe at the position. We're very solid."

Frerotte would like more playing time Saturday night rather than just a quarter. But Bratkowski said injuries on the offensive line could dictate Kitna and Frerotte each playing just a quarter, like they have in the previous two games. He may decide the first-team offensive line is too nicked to play into the second half, which has been the tradition in the third pre-season game.

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SWEEPS AND TRAPS:** Pro Bowl RB Corey Dillon isn't expected to practice again Tuesday after he missed Monday's workout to go to Cincinnati and get his knee checked. Trainer Paul Sparling described the visit with team doctor Rob Heidt Jr., as routine to see how his knee is responding to last March's arthroscopic surgery. Sparling says Dillon is still probable to make his 2002 debut Saturday night against the Saints. . .

The offensive line had a slew of people missing at Monday's practice

as they rested injuries from Saturday night. Backups Scott Rehberg (knee) and Victor Leyva (ankle) are questionable. Ts Willie Anderson and Jamain Stephens (shoulder) are probable, but didn't practice Monday to rest their nicks. . .

Backup DE Eric Ogbogu (calf) who has yet to play in a scrimmage or game since coming over from the Jets, has been downgraded to doubtful. . .Backup DT Glen Steele (neck) is questionable. . .

But they also have a slew of players who are probable, including WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh (ankle). Set to make their '02 debuts Saturday are CB Artrell Hawkins (knee) and WR Danny Farmer (hamstring). SS JoJuan Armour (groin) is probable after Saturday's injury. . .

ROLB Takeo Spikes (shoulder) out for Saturday, was excused from practice Monday for personal reasons. . .

Former Bengals DB Robert Jackson came to camp Monday with the youth team from Lakota he helps coach and Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau had him say a few words to the club after practice.

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