6-3-03, 4:45 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Akili Smith isn't sure which phone calls have meant more.
The four calls from other NFL teams inquiring after his services. Or the calls from former Bengals' teammates Corey Dillon and Jon Kitna.
"I talked to T.J. (Houshmandzadeh), too, but I called him to talk about some other things," Smith said Monday night. "It felt good that Jon and C.D. called me. They basically said it was the best thing for me and that I was going to hook on with somebody and get a fresh start."
Life moved on at Paul Brown Stadium Monday, the day Smith was officially released from his four-year run as the Bengals' failed franchise quarterback.
Left guard Eric Steinbach, the club's second-round pick, said his La Jolla, Calif.-based agent has spent some face time with Bengals vice president Paul Brown trying to hammer out a contract.
Equipment managers Rob Recker and Jeff Brickner prepared for Tuesday's arrival of new quarterback Shane Matthews, and toyed with lockering him next to the next quarterback of the future, rookie Carson Palmer.
No. 1 quarterback Jon Kitna wondered about getting tickets for this week's Reds-Yankees series.
Meanwhile, Smith's locker at the head of the dressing room stood empty, symbolic of the results of coach Bruce Coslet's gesture at the beginning of the 2000 season when he made Smith the leader of the team despite just four NFL starts and 19 at the University of Oregon.
If at one time during the 2000 season his teammates resented Smith for being outspoken and seemingly cavalier about his responsibilities, there was much empathy for him Monday after he spent the past two seasons doggedly trying to put his career back together. Kitna, for one, didn't think he got a fair shake last season, but he thinks the release is the best thing that could have happened to him.
"In this league, if you get started on the wrong foot, it's hard to change that. It almost never gets mended," said Kitna, who lived through the Mike Holmgren divorce in Seattle. "Now he goes to a new place and they'll be focused on the positives and not the negatives."
"He had to get out of here," said right tackle Willie Anderson, echoing the sentiment of his teammates. "A lot
of things weren't his fault. A lot of things were. The blame on his career can't be put (all) on his shoulders. . . He needed to get out of the stigma of being another Cincinnati quarterback, a high draft pick that hasn't made it. Especially with Carson coming in.
"Akili had his little run, and things didn't work out and he can go somewhere else and have time enough to develop," Anderson said. "He needs more developing. He probably never had coaching to do that here. His head coach (Coslet) quit on him. His quarterbacks coach (Ken Anderson) had to take on the responsibilities of being the coordinator, so he never really had a chance to get coached. The big thing was the people doing the contract not getting him in here early enough his rookie year to training camp. That set him back two years."
Willie Anderson's laundry list is as good as any when it comes to explaining how Smith went from the third pick in the 1999 NFL Draft to the third quarterback the past two seasons. On Monday night, a gracious Smith said it had gone by all so quickly and he is still, "completely baffled by why I've succeeded everywhere I've ever been but the NFL."
Anderson looks at the two quarterbacks drafted directly ahead of Smith in Cleveland's Tim Couch and Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb, as well as Minnesota's Duante Culpepper at No. 11, and "it makes you wonder."
There was the lack of Division I experience.
There was Darnay Scott's broken leg that left him with 15 NFL catches among his five wide receivers on Opening Day, 2000.
There was the perpetual awkward roster situation, whether it was aloof veteran Jeff Blake in front of him as a rookie, or free-agent pickups later, such as Kitna, Scott Mitchell and Gus Frerotte.
There was the lack of rapport with his first coaching staff.
"My relationship with Kenny Anderson wasn't as good as it should have been and that hurt me in Cincinnati," Smith said.
Privately, the Bengals were never enamored with his ability to read quickly in the pocket and they didn't think he was nearly the athletic caliber of such quarterbacks as McNabb, or Michael Vick, or even the aging Rich Gannon.
But the rookie holdout is a good place to start.
When Smith showed up at Georgetown College Aug. 24, 1999, 25 days after camp started, Coslet put the damage at 27 missed practices. It's not lost on Smith that Palmer, the first pick in this year's draft, signed 94 days before camp opens July 27 and he may have close to 27 practices before he even hits Georgetown because he's been at all the off-season workouts Smith had to miss in '99 because of Oregon's June 11 graduation.
"They've done everything right with Carson and it's the opposite of what they did with me. I think they learned from me and I wish Carson nothing but the best," Smith said. "I think he's going to do well because I think Marvin (Lewis) has the thing turned around and rolling the right way."
Lewis led the organization's praise of Smith Monday. He called him a "good soldier," and noted that he did everything the new coaching staff asked of him. But in the two months he had to prove to them he could play, Smith couldn't get back the experience of all the games he had missed because of his Nov. 13, 2000 benching and injuries to his big toe and hamstring.
"We didn't feel we had a veteran quarterback with substantial game experience other than Jon here," said offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. "Shane gives us that."
Kitna heard about some of the things that Smith said that 2000 season, about a struggling left tackle and inexperienced wide receivers, and he feels those were mistakes.
"Those things were probably true, but as a quarterback, you can't say that," Kitna said. "You have to bear the brunt, and he didn't have anybody here to teach him that. I would have loved to have been here for him then."
But Kitna doesn't want to hang out Blake to dry on that one, either, because after going through awkward quarterback derbies in 2001 and 2002, he knows it's not always so cut-and-dried.
"I can see Jeff Blake's point, too," Kitna said of that '99 season. "Jeff Blake thinks he can play in this league, so he's not going to help run himself out of the NFL by taking him under his wing. Part of it, too, is that the understudy has to be willing to be the understudy. And then when you have three guys like we had the last two years, you really don't know how the other guy is coming at you if he says something to you. You're wondering, 'What's his angle?'"
But Kitna was extremely impressed with the way Smith handled last year's three-headed monster that included Frerotte. And although Kitna got his chance to string together the best 12 games of his career after Smith got chewed up by Tampa Bay last season, he doesn't think that was fair.
"It's well documented how I didn't think last year's quarterback situation was handled right and I thought the three of us handled it as well as it could be," Kitna said. "I thought he did a good job with that. He had every right after the Tampa Bay game to say something. He probably deserved more of an opportunity after that, but it didn't happen."
Smith agrees. It wasn't fair. But he's also moving on.
"I think Kitna is going to have a big season," Smith said. "I know he's expecting nothing less and the way he played at the end of last season, all the signs are there."
Smith is hesitant to name the four interested teams, but wide receiver Peter Warrick named a team he'd like to pick him up.
"Green Bay," Warrick said. "Learn behind Brett Favre. He'd be gangsta."
Warrick was one of those three rookie receivers in 2000. He didn't have a mentor, either.
"I had nobody. He had to learn on the run, we had to learn on the run. It was hard," Warrick said. "I hope God is good to him and he can have some good times."
Willie Anderson, a hard-core NFL fan from way back, thinks Smith has plenty of time and ability to rehab his career.
"He's a smart guy. He knows his plays. He knows what's going on. He has a strong NFL arm," Anderson said. "Once he finds the right fit, he'll probably be one of those you see that travel early on in their career, but after eight, nine, 10 years, they get it going and he may be one of those guys that helps take a team to the Super Bowl. You see it all the time."
The Bengals and Smith never saw eye to eye. But like agent Kennard McGuire said the other day, "He not only gets to start a new chapter, but a new book."