Benching challenges Smith

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Bengals quarterback Akili Smith, a three-sport star, a baseball draft choice, and a college football All-American, never had been benched. Until Sunday. By coach Dick LeBeau.

Smith had alternated at Oregon during his junior year. But this was different and he still isn't sure why he got pulled. The coaches think he played pretty well and Smith himself thought he made all his checks at the line of scrimmage as well as improved his accuracy.

"(LeBeau) thought the spark was going to come from the quarterback position," Smith said. "I thought I was having a decent game at the time."

But when he broke his silence Wednesday, Smith embraced the concept the quarterback takes the heat for the other 10 guys on the NFL's last-rated offense. Even if he didn't play as badly as it looked.

Then he embraced LeBeau as they exchanged places for a news conference. Then he went out to practice and stayed an extra 10 minutes after throwing to his running backs.

Meanwhile, during lunch, rookie receiver Peter Warrick showed up in his position coach's office with a full tray of food to watch film.

"He told me he's sick of losing and he wants to do whatever it takes," said Steve Mooshagian of his No. 1 draft pick. "And he's putting it on himself. No fingers pointed."

Smith didn't point fingers, but he admitted he's the one who looks bad even when someone else makes a mistake.

Smith has been sacked and stripped of the ball in the last three games and when he was asked how he could work on not fumbling the ball, Smith said it would be hard to simulate getting drilled by a defensive tackle in the back.

"That's what comes with being the head man of the team, being the quarterback," Smith said.

LeBeau said again Wednesday he benched Smith in the third quarter of the 15-0 loss in Pittsburgh because he was trying to find some points with 20 minutes left in the game. But LeBeau also reiterated Smith played well enough to throw only one uncatchable pass of his 20 throws, 10 which were completed for 97 yards.

"That's why I really don't know why he decided to make the move," Smith said, making no effort to hide the fact he was startled LeBeau said nothing to him until after backup Scott Mitchell played his first series.

But Smith also said he could understand where LeBeau was coming from, given his stats.

And he also appreciated LeBeau's gesture during the plane flight back from Pittsburgh. The coach ventured into the players' section and told Smith even if Mitchell had engineered a comeback victory, Smith would still start against Denver this week.

"It's part of our growing process. Both Akili and mine together," LeBeau said. "He has to understand he's the No. 1 quarterback and my obligation is to put points on the board for all of us and we'll look at every opportunity to do so. It doesn't mean we're down on Akili Smith. I think he understands it will be part of our process of maturation."

Smith realizes his work isn't appreciated even if it's not his fault at times.

"They just write what they want to write," Smith said of the media.

The Bengals' young receivers are apparently having a hard time getting timed up with Smith on crossing routes and it looks like he's throwing behind them.

"(On) the crossing routes, the receivers have to get in certain holes," Smith said. "From a viewer's standpoint, it looks like Akili's inaccurate. But from a personal standpoint, knowing our players and our schemes, sometimes it's the receivers not in the right holes that they need to be in. But (the media) doesn't know that. You guys just write, 'Another poor day for Smith.'"

Mooshagian said it's a matter of Smith and his receivers "getting on the same page. . .

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"(Warrick) rushed some of his routes trying to get open," Mooshagian said. "It's not that he was doing the wrong thing. He was out of control. He's trying so hard to get open that his body is out of control. Either Akili is rushing the throw or Pete is out of control on his route and they just have to get on the same page."

Smith briefly flashed his trademark confidence. He's last in the NFL in yards per pass (4.8) and completion percentage (44.6) and has the third worst passing rating (53.3) behind Ryan Leaf and Troy Aikman.

"I'm not going to put pressure at all on myself," Smith said. "I'm going to try to get my QB rating up. I can't be in the cellar for the whole season. I have to get out of this little funk I'm in. I promise I'll not finish last in that category.

"As a head coach, if you look at the first four games," Smith said, "I played poorly against Cleveland. Jacksonville I had a poor half. Baltimore (when he got hurt on the game's s sixth snap) I got the concussion. Miami I had a great half. Tennessee I made a few plays. From a viewer's standpoint, maybe it's the quarterback that needs to be changed. . .Dick went with Mitch and he gave it his all and he just couldn't get it done."

The Bengals are trying to help Smith by demoting left tackle Rod Jones after he struggled protecting Smith's blind-side and gave up at least two fumble-causing hits. John Jackson, a 13-year veteran, now has the job. But Smith admitted there are times he does hold the ball too long.

"It's nothing you can work on," said Smith of ball security "How can you tell me to stay after practice and have a big D tackle come up behind me? That's impossible to work on. I don't know what to do about that.

"Anytime you're going to cut the ball loose, that's when you're at your most relaxed point and that's the easiest time to get stripped."

Until the last two weeks, Smith had been free and easy with the media But he's clearly more subdued, more measured, more frustrated. He hasn't talked after the last two games and didn't talk the day after the last game.

"It gets frustrating to go out and do the same thing over and over in the game," Smith said. "We compete, but we don't do what it takes to win ball games. You guys ask the same questions and I give the same answers, so it's a lot of repetition and sometimes you get tired of that stuff."

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