7-30-01, 3:35 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ Bengals President Mike Brown stopped all talk Monday about pulling the plug on Akili Smith.
The club's principal owner stood up for his beleaguered franchise quarterback to critics inside and outside the organization by suggesting he could have a future in Cincinnati after 2001 once he is comfortable with the offense.
"I think it would be ridiculous to give up on him. We don't intend to," Brown said before Monday's practice here at Georgetown College. "Even if this year is still a slow go for him. Quarterbacks are all different. They all come along at a different rate, and I think it's too early to pronounce Akili out of the running. I think he's in the running even this year, let alone for the future. This race hasn't even reached the first turn yet. I think once he gets comfortable with this offense, he'll show."
The major reason the Bengals can't cut Smith this year is because the pro-ration of his $10.8 million signing bonus worthy of the third pick in the 1999 draft would accelerate under this year's salary cap. The club would take a $6 million hit when it has only about $2 million worth of room.
But beyond finances, Brown sees Smith slowly progressing in offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski's scheme. Brown has always adhered to Paul Brown's code of leaving player relations to the head coach, but he took the extraordinary move late last week to walk up to Smith to tell him he is still very much in the mix.
"He's sensitive," Brown said. "We're all sensitive to criticism. "I just wanted to reassure him that he has every bit the chance here he has always had. Who ever can make this team work and make us go is going to be that guy. And that could change during the year.
"When we went over to Philadelphia at the end of last year," Brown said, " their guy (Donovan McNabb) was no more accurate than Akili. Yet they've been able to get it out of him."
Smith plans to work on his accuracy following practices this week
after a scattery Saturday in the intrasquad scrimmage. He was 3-for-6 and consistently high, so he'll prepare for this Saturday's pre-season opener in Chicago by concentrating on not throwing across his body.
But Smith called it back in March. It's not him vs. Jon Kitna, Scott Mitchell, or the ghost of Boomer Esiason. It's Smith vs. Smith as his teammates and coaches urge him to ignore the little things that have distracted him from focusing on the big picture.
"Physically, I'm there. I've got all the talent," Smith said. "There's a lot of pressure. This is the big test for me mentally to see if Akili Smith is ready to play in the NFL. This is it."
Although head coach Dick LeBeau has told him this isn't a make-or-break year, Smith continues to say it is. But Brown can see the light possibly turning on in 2002 if not now.
"I see him getting better and I see him just a tick away from having this all come together," Brown said. "At times he hasn't been as consistent as the other two guys. Probably his completion percentage is lower. But I would equate that to a batting average and just because some hitter doesn't hit well in April doesn't mean he won't come on during the full season."
Brown thinks the new scheme fits him because it gets the ball up field and Smith's strength is supposed to be the medium-range throw. He also agrees with Smith that one of his biggest weapons, his mobility, is locked out of practice.
"Let's see what happens in the games," Brown said, which is what Smith is saying.
Offensive captain Willie Anderson is offering some advice: Tune out the critics.
"My thing with Akili is he can't let the outside things affect him," Anderson said. "I guarantee you, the two veteran guys aren't paying attention to what people are saying, and he can't do that.
"My advice to him is, 'Listen to Dick,' " Anderson said. "He's the head coach. And if he's saying it's a three-man race, then it's up to the quarterbacks to prove it on the field. The same people who are criticizing you are going to embrace you when you do well. That's just the nature of the beast."