BY GEOFF HOBSON
The biggest fans of embattled Bengals quarterback Akili Smith wait in Dallas this Sunday.
From the 85 people on his father's side, to the 75 people on his stepmother's side, to NFL scouting guru Gil Brandt.
Brandt, whose moves as their former player personnel man helped turn the Cowboys into America's Team, ignores the stats and sticks to his call that Smith becomes a big-time NFL quarterback.
"Coach (Tom) Landry said it takes a quarterback three years to get settled," said Brandt of the late Cowboys coach. "And it's a lot tougher nowadays. It's just so hard when a rookie quarterback is also working with rookie receivers.
"When we had Akili at the East-West (all-star game in 1999), he was the most impressive quarterback we had there since John Elway," Brandt said. " He was mentally tough, he was accurate, the players looked up to him, and he had great recall. I just think when a guy is a good person and he works hard, he's going to be successful."
Smith arrives in his adopted hometown as the triggerman of the NFL's last-rated pass offense, the quarterback who is last in passing rating (52.3), completion percentage (44.1), and average yard per pass at 4.76.
But playing in Texas Stadium looks to give him a lift against an injury-riddled defense ranked 23rd in the league before losing starting tackle Leon Lett and safety George Teague for the season this week.
"Dallas is a special place for me and I think it's going to be the best thing for me," Smith said this week. "I've been taking everything hard. But I think this puts everything in perspective and I think it's going to relax me."
What would make it perfect is if Randall Cunningham started at quarterback for the Cowboys. When Cunningham was in his heyday with the Eagles a decade ago, he inspired Smith to aspire to make it as an African-American quarterback in the NFL.
"I liked his athleticism," Smith said. "His ability to throw the ball around. Yes, the fact that there weren't many (African-American) quarterbacks at that time meant something too. To play against Randall in Dallas would be a great opportunity."
But Cunningham looks to be going into the game as Troy Aikman's backup after sitting sat out Thursday's practice with fluid on the knee. Aikman practiced for the second straight day after getting a cortisone shot in his lower back and is expected to start.
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Which is pretty good for Smith, too, because he doesn't know how many afternoons he listened to John Madden tell him why Aikman and Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin were winning.
Karen Smith, Smith's stepmother , can go back even earlier. She's from a Port Arthur, Texas family that has lived and died with the Cowboys for years.
When Akili was seven and eight years old, he knew Karen adored a certain Cowboys running back. So he would stand at the bottom of the stairs and yell, "Hey Karen, Tony Dorsett is on TV."
"And everyone would get out of the way because I would come flying down the stairs," Karen Smith said. "My (late) mother went back to the days of Mel Renfro. She knew the names of all the Cowboys. But no one in my family has ever been to Texas Stadium. It's just going to be a thrill for all of us."
Karen and her husband, Ray Smith, have become close with Brandt. Ray Smith grew up in San Diego and raised his son there, but much of his family stayed in Dallas after making the move from Louisiana several decades ago.
"Maybe I'm too close to the family," Brandt said. "They're fine people. But Akili has still got what it takes to make it. The two things you need are mental toughness and accuracy. And I think it's difficult to be accurate when you're running for your life. I know earlier in the year they were struggling at left tackle and that's going to be tough on a young quarterback."
Brandt, who writes for NFL.COM, insists on calling Smith a rookie this season because he had just four starts last year. He points to the record of teams in games started by quarterbacks in their rookie season.
Elway was 4-6, Jake Plummer 4-5, Drew Bledsoe 5-7, Bernie Kosar 4-6, Boomer Esiason 2-2, Charlie Batch 5-7.
Look at Aikman and Cunningham on Brandt's chart. Aikman was 0-10 while throwing nine touchdown passes and 18 interceptions. Cunningham was 1-3 in hitting 42 percent of his passes with one touchdown and eight interceptions for a passing rating of 29.8.
Dan Marino was 7-2, but Brandt says, "People forget that Marino came to a team that already had very good veteran receivers. . .(Vikings quarterback) Daunte Culpepper has a lot of good players already around him. Akili's guys are as young as he is. I still think he's got the temperament and the character."
Smith has been pretty upfront this week. He thought he played a decent game against the Ravens last week, except for his snap count twice failing to give tight end Tony McGee time to set and three passes in which he and split end Craig Yeast failed to communicate.
"We keep making mistakes that shouldn't be happening," Smith said. "Whether it's me not being accurate, or my guy not coming into the right hole, or not adjusting, we've got to get it fixed."
The passes to Yeast all seemed to come against blitzes. Smith said one time Yeast didn't see the blitz coming, another time he didn't respond to bump coverage the way Smith thought he would, and the other time they didn't adjust together on a pass over the middle.
As Smith said about his receivers having to make adjustments at the line, "If your mind is kind of cloudy, it's too late."
But Smith is also taking some blame, saying he's been putting too much pressure on himself to produce the big break-through game. Brandt, who has seen plenty of big games from quarterbacks, counsels patience.
"When you find out about quarterbacks, you're a miracle," Brandt said, pointing to the sudden rise of 49er Jeff Garcia. "Garcia (had been) terrible, now this year he might pass up Steve Young's touchdown record."