Could Smith start?

8-10-02, 6:55 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. _ Akili Smith isn't going anywhere.

Neither is Jon Kitna. And neither is Peter Warrick, Sean Brewer, Rudi Johnson, Neil Rackers and all the other maligned in the Bengals' much maligned offense.

"I'm not going away," said Smith Friday night after he led the Bengals to their last 10 points and a 24-17 victory here over the Bills. "I don't think that. I have three years left on my contract. Eventually, hopefully, I get the job back and show them I can lead this team. It's a two-man race. I'm not starting anything. I wish it was a three-man race. If it's a two-man race that they want, that's what they'd do."

On Sunday, Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau wouldn't rule out starting Smith in the third preseason game on Aug. 24 at home against the Saints. LeBeau also wouldn't rule out naming his starter for the season before that game.

After the game, offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski wasn't prepared to put Smith in the quarterback derby with Jon Kitna and Gus Frerotte, which spins next Saturday with Frerotte starting in Indianapolis. Bratkowski first wanted to evaluate the tape of Smith's 10-for-17 outing in which he threw for 72 yards and scrambled for 12 more. Included in the film is Smith's first touchdown pass in any game in nearly two years to tight end Sean Brewer, in his first game of any kind since missing all of last year labeled a bust while sitting out with a groin injury.

Bratkowski had to be pleased with how the dispossessed responded in the first game of the second year of his offense. All three quarterbacks led touchdown drives with a crisp brew of 190 yards passing and 181 yards rushing that featured backup running back Rudi Johnson's 100 yards rushing on just 14 carries.

Against a defense that finished 21st in the NFL last season, they converted 67 percent of their third downs, allowed no sacks, and hogged the ball for 39:02 against a re-tooled unit in its second season under head coach Gregg Williams.

Johnson, labeled a wasted fourth-round draft pick last year after being active for just two games with no carries, flashed the bruising running that brought him 10 100-yard games at Auburn in 2000.

"It was good to see all three quarterbacks get in there and take the team down the field," Bratkowski said. "We had too many penalties and we've got a long way to go, but it's a good start."

Kitna hit seven of his first nine throws for 51 yards in the season's first series to get his touchdown and all but one incompletion in his stats. Frerotte rebounded from an interception to complete all but one of his five passes in the first half's final drive and finished the night 6-for-10 for 67 yards.

Right tackle Willie Anderson has been viewing the Bengals' annual quarterback competition since his rookie year of 1996, which is, by the way, the last time they won a preseason opener and the last time they scored at least 24 points in a preseason opener.

"This shows we have made progress," Anderson said of the derbies. "To have three quarterbacks go out and do what they did, (that) the

three guys led the offense and the offense responded to them is big. This (derby) is the best. We haven't had a second guy compete the way Gus does. I imagine that put pressure on Kitna and he responded and Akili did pretty well, too. He showed he's got something left."

Warrick, who led the Bengals with six catches for 47 yards, caught himself when he said of the quarterbacks, "I like them both, Akili, too. It's great to see a lot of competition from both sides. That's what it's all about. Competition.

Warrick certainly didn't play favorites. He converted two third downs each from Kitna and Frerotte in their touchdown drives. He also kept alive Frerotte's drive when he was interfered with on third down and finished it off on a nine-yard touchdown catch on "a trailer play."

Warrick, ripped for scoring just one touchdown last year, looked like his old Florida State self. On a third-and-two in that drive, he made sure he got the first down by catching a quick four-yard throw in front of safety Coy Wire and then spun inside for 10 more yards.

"It's a whole new year," Warrick said. "We're playing better as a unit. It's my third year, man. I've been trying to adjust and I feel like I'm a complete receiver now. I'm just confident."

If Warrick is Exhibit A of Kitna's argument to stick with the same people for two years, then Kitna is Exhibit A-1. Kitna was flawless on four third downs, and found Warrick on the run on one of them. In last year's pre-season opener, Kitna had to run for his life against the Bears as the offensive line adjusted to their new protections. But Friday, Kitna had plenty of time on third down.

"The thing you saw tonight is what I've said since the middle of last year," Kitna said. If you keep things together, I think you have a chance to develop some continuity and consistency and tonight we were very consistent. The big thing is that we weren't third-and-eight and more. If you keep it third-and-seven or less, a lot of times you have a chance to convert them."

It was a giddy night with Kitna wondering if he had been a bit too exuberant on the sidelines for head coach Dick LeBeau as he tried to keep Smith loose.

But there was a lot to cheer about. After taking the 24-17 lead on Rackers' 34-yard field goal with 9:28 left in the game, Smith found himself looking at a second-and-13 from his own four. Showing no signs of the severely torn hamstring that cut short his one start last season, Smith moved smoothly on a roll-out pass and hit rookie receiver Michael Slater for a 21-yard gain.

LeBeau made it clear he felt it was important enough to win this game with a couple of moves. Later in that drive, knowing Buffalo would take its last timeout with 3:54 left, Smith handed the ball off instead of throwing.

And when Rackers came on the field to kick the field goal when it was rookie Travis Dorsch's turn, LeBeau said he didn't want to send a rookie into that situation. Rackers, whose career 59-percent rating has subjected him to much abuse, also appeared to kick off better than Dorsch Friday.

Smith, meanwhile, celebrated his first touchdown pass since his five-yarder to Warrick way back on Nov. 26, 2000 against the Steelers.

"It shows I can run this offense," Smith said. "I put in a lot of work with Brat in the offseason and I think it's paying off. Hopefully I can improve next week, and the week after that and the last week. If my number is called, I don't care if it's the middle of the season or when ever it is."

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