12-6-01, 6:00 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
After blowing off steam the past few weeks, Akili Smith is warming to the idea of being a Bengal next season. As he finally gets his coveted snaps as the No. 2 quarterback, he's rooting for starter Jon Kitna because he's been there.
"I was in pretty much the situation Kitna was in last year and I know how I felt," said Smith as the man who took the brickbats for a struggling offense last year.
"So now I'm at the reverse end. It seemed like I was being selfish, like I want to play no matter what. This offense is going through a lot of things and I just hope Kitna finishes strong. That's the attitude I'm taking from here on."
Speculation is rampant when the Bengals will give Smith a few starts to see if their one-time franchise quarterback has progressed. But even if he doesn't get any snaps, he's thinking he'll be back next year and it relieves him in a way.
"I get the sense I'll be back and I would be happy with it," Smith said. "Because, honestly, this is the kind of offense I ran in Oregon and it would be hard to have to go some place and learn my third offense in four years."
After talking with him over lunch Thursday, Kitna said Smith understands why Kitna doesn't want to be lifted even if the Bengals are eliminated from the playoffs.
"We talked about a lot of things. It was a good talk," Kitna said of their chance meeting in a film room. "Both of us understand. You look at the teams that are consistent in this league and they stick with their guy. Who ever that guy is. Peyton Manning didn't light it up right away. Brett Favre didn't light it up when he first started. Tim Couch. You stick with them and they learn. Guys learn them.
"I think the philosophy is you fit everyone else around the quarterback, not vice versa," Kitna said. "I told (Smith) in training camp it's not fair what they did to him last year. Give him (10 games) and that's it? I told him if God wants him here, he'll be here in whatever fashion."
For the moment, the Bengals anticipate both Kitna and Smith returning next year, indicating No. 3 Scott Mitchell is most likely moving on.
"We don't need to draft another first-round quarterback with what we have here," Smith said.
And Smith is right. Kitna is
where he was last year. Dead last in AFC passing rating among starters with 64.9.
Depite Kitna's 10-13 touchdowns-interceptions ratio, the Bengals don't plan on pursuing a high-priced starter via free agency or the draft. They won't rule out drafting a quarterback in the middle rounds, but they are banking on Kitna's experience and Smith's promise to surface.
"I think Jon's poised and has good leadership qualities," said Bengals President Mike Brown said, "It's the first year of the offense and we think we can get it right. We keep saying it over and over about Akili.
"We've never ruled him out," Brown said. "Look at the list of quarterbacks who hung around not doing well before they actually made it. It might take a year or two longer than we had hoped, but we haven't given up on him."
In the days leading up to last month's game in Cleveland, Smith ripped the Bengals for not getting any practice snaps as the No. 3 quarterback, questioned the way the club developed him, and said he doubted he would be back next year. The frustration boiled over when they played him in the last 1:13 of the 18-0 loss to the Browns that cost Mitchell the backup job and got Smith promoted. Even though Smith said the club show him no respect by putting him in at that point in the game.
Smith has taken heat for not getting into his playbook, but he says that was true last year after he got benched and not this year. After looking at tape with Kitna during lunch Thursday, he was back watching tape at 5:30 p.m. and most of his teammates gone.
"I don't think the people know the studying I do here or at home," Smith said. "That explosion about going into the game, I still don't think I should have gone in, but it was mostly frustration at not getting any snaps in practice. If I was No. 3 and at least getting some snaps, I wouldn't have been as frustrated. To me, it's the only way a quarterback can develop. If there's a coach that feels differently, then come and talk to me."