BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals insist Akili Smith is the quarterback of the future.
But it looks like he's not the quarterback of the present. This Sunday against Arizona, a team with a woeful run defense (28th) going against the Bengals' second-best run offense, coach Dick LeBeau indicated Monday Scott Mitchell would get the nod if healthy.
And all indications are Mitchell is healthy enough to begin practicing Wednesday on his sprained left knee.
Meanwhile, Bengals receiver Damon Griffin remembers the quarterback of the past and he insists his man can still be as good as he was for 19 magical games at the University of Oregon.
Griffin, who caught 58 passes from Smith two years ago at Oregon, can't pinpoint the problem in the NFL. But he knows this isn't the same guy he watched throw 32 touchdown passes in one season. He wonders if Smith and the receivers have had problems adjusting to the Bengals' option-oriented passing game.
"It's not college anymore," Griffin said. "The offense (at Oregon) is way different in style. You understood what you were doing. (Now) there are so many options where the quarterback and the receivers aren't always on the same page. We were always on the same page."
It really wasn't college nine games ago when Bengals head coach Bruce Coslet, who was basically his own playcaller, resigned after the season's first three games. That took away a chunk of Smith's time with his personal tutor because offensive coordinator Ken Anderson took on the playcalling.
Griffin remembers how Smith blossomed his senior season after intense one-on-one off-season sessions with Oregon coordinator Jeff Tedford.
"Ted changed his whole game around," Griffin said. "He came out of it confident, he knew what he was doing. A lot of it is, we're not on the same page. You have receivers and quarterbacks doing two different things, but you can't pinpoint one thing."
Smith spent this past offseason getting tutored by Anderson in Cincinnati, much like he did with Tedford in Eugene before that senior season.
So Griffin, who hasn't been active in more than a month, and Smith will literally give it the old college try in the offseason back in California. They've talked about hooking up with some of their college teammates and friends.
"Go back to the basics," Griffin said. "Go back to what got us here. We're talking about not taking a month or month and a half off after the season. We're talking about taking two weeks and getting back into it."
What can be pinpointed about their murky quarterback situation is the Bengals apparently feel they have a better shot at winning with Mitchell rather than Smith.
Asked why the Bengals would go with a veteran quarterback with four games remaining on his one-year contract instead of their $55 million franchise quarterback in Smith, LeBeau was clear. Also clear is that LeBeau is 2-7 since taking over for Coslet and he's trying to win a full season next year as head coach.
"If I believe this is our best chance to win the game, that's what we'll go with," LeBeau said. "We are in the business to win football games. We think that our young quarterback has a good future and we are doing everything we can to develop that player. But if our best chance to win the game is with a veteran quarterback, then that's what we'll do."
Griffin said Smith understands. And the reason his friend hasn't talked to the media since he got benched two weeks ago is that he's trying to focus on winning his job back.
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"He's been taking a lot of pressure and he doesn't need the added pressure. The media doesn't help," Griffin said. "The season hasn't been going well. He wants to concentrate on getting things right. He has four more games to prove something.
" He knows he has to have a good game now," Griffin said. "He had a good week. Scott Mitchell had good week. He knows they're probably going to switch them up. He has to target what he has to do."
Grffin said Smith has no hard feelings when it comes to LeBeau's motives.
"Akili knows that. He understands what's going on," Griffin said. "There's not going to be any hardness between him and LeBeau. Even though we're not going to the playoffs, we still want to win some games and salvage something for the future."
According to Bengals trainer Paul Sparling, Mitchell's sprained medial collateral ligament is well enough for him to resume practice Wednesday after sitting out all last week.
"We'll see how he tolerates it Wednesday, Thursday and Friday," Sparling said. "If he tolerates it and proves to the coaches that he can be effective (he can play). With the level of progress he's made so far, I anticipate he'd be able to answer the bell."
If Mitchell can answer the bell, LeBeau looks ready to ring it a week after Mitchell led the Bengals to their most productive passing day of the season.
"I would not rule him out of starting but I'm not ready to say right now that he will start in the game," LeBeau said. "It depends on how his leg comes along."