Fuzzy math at QB

BY GEOFF HOBSON

While Scott Mitchell cuts down the Bengals playbook this week, he hopes it will add to his list of suitors at the end of the season.

Mitchell, the 22nd man to start a game at quarterback for the Bengals this Sunday in New England, has become an NFL hired gun. A journeyman quarterback with a one-year deal seeking one last shot at glory.

It doesn't sound like the Bengals fit him for next year and he could be headed to his fourth team in four years. But like he said Wednesday, "We have to see what happens."

Demoted quarterback Akili Smith has no plans to talk to the media anytime soon as they buzz with the question, "What does Mitchell have to do to keep Smith off the field?"

"It's not going to do me any good if I talk to you or do you any good if you talk to me," Smith said. "I just have to work hard and be ready when I get back in there."

Mitchell thinks there's no debate. Smith is the once and future quarterback of the Bengals.

"Today, that's the way it is. He's still the franchise quarterback," Mitchell said. "I don't see that changing today. I don't think they (benched him) because they don't like him. I think they did it to try and help him."

Mitchell, who quarterbacked the Lions to three playoff berths in the mid-90s, admits he's not looking past Sunday. This is his first week getting the bulk of practice snaps since the second week of the season last year in Baltimore.

He knows anything can happen in this league, where he went from throwing for 4,338 yards in 1995 to getting beat out by Stoney Case last year.

"Even if I do well, I don't know if I'll get a job next year," said Mitchell, 32. "I want to play if there's an opportunity. It just depends what the opportunities are there. It fit me if we would have a chance to win, they like what I do, and give me a chance to play."

At the moment that doesn't sound like the Bengals, whose coach has said all week the club isn't giving up on Smith.

But who knows? After taking every first-team snap Wednesday (he figures about 40 plays), he stayed past 6 p.m. working with offensive coordinator Ken Anderson as they try to fix the league's worst pass offense.

Mitchell is telling Anderson what he likes, which are quick passes, not so deep drops, and a core of pass plays to master during the week.

If this is Mitchell's last shot, he wants it to be a good one. His mantra this week has been to simplify things and it may not have come at a better time. Last week during the second half in Dallas, the Bengals' sideline headsets broke down and the signals had to be hand flashed to Smith.

"Even I was confused," said one veteran.

But Mitchell said Wednesday, "I want to make sure everyone is on the same page. . .don't have the deer-in-the-headlight look."

The Bengals have about 20 to 25 pass plays in their base offense and about 20 more on third down. Some players think that might be too much for a rookie quarterback and young receivers. But others say the playbook has been pared down for a couple of weeks, particularly on third down.

Mitchell's point is that fewer plays allow more repetition. When the Lions started 0-3 in '95, Detroit ended up with seven basic pass plays. . .

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"We were doing a lot of different things and we just cut down the playbook," Mitchell said. "We read out the defense, put the best players on the field and just went out and played football."

When he's relieved Smith this season, Mitchell has played with the rust of a man who had played in just four games the previous two years. He's completed just 41 percent of his 44 passes and thrown four interceptions.

"Given a chance to work a week and put in things I like," Mitchell said, "I think I've got a good chance."

The Bengals like his commitment. President Mike Brown recalls watching the Ravens warm up on the field before beating the Bengals last December in Baltimore and was intrigued by how well an offensive lineman threw the ball.

He later discovered it was a 265-pound Mitchell underneath that warmup jacket. Which is why the one-year contract Mitchell signed with the Bengals three months later contained a weight clause stipulating he needed to be 245 pounds by May 16. Brown figures he's at about 238 pounds right now and in his best shape in years.

"You never know when you get another chance or if this is it," Mitchell said. "I committed myself last year that I wanted to go out on my own terms, and finish the way I want."

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