McNabb backs Akili

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Donovan McNabb, the Eagles quarterback who could be the NFL MVP this season, wonders why Akili Smith won't be playing for the Bengals when the teams meet in Philadelphia Christmas Eve.

You remember McNabb? The Syracuse Slinger selected the pick before Smith in the 1999 NFL Draft? McNabb went No. 2 to the Eagles and got booed. Smith went No. 3 and was cheered. Now McNabb is an upset away from leading the Eagles into their first home playoff game in five years.

Yes, when the Eagles beat a Detroit Lions team led by Scott Mitchell, the man quarterbacking the Bengals Sunday instead of Smith.

"I'm very surprised," said McNabb Wednesday in a conference call with the Cincinnati media. "You look at a team like that where things aren't really falling into place and you draft a guy in the first round, you'd think you want to develop him into the quarterback that you want.

"Maybe they've got reasons over there," McNabb said. "They want to give him a little foundation. But when you sit the guy down, that really isn't helping out the game plan and it's really not helping Akili."

McNabb and Smith have remained friends since the pre-draft rituals of the bowl games and scouting combine. Although he hasn't talked to Smith since the offseason, McNabb said their families have kept in touch to keep the friendship alive. McNabb is a big fan of his fellow '99 classmates: "I'm a big supporter of my class."

"He's a strong guy mentally," McNabb said. "He wants to be the best. He's a competitor. It's tough to be the best when he's doing what he's doing right now. I think things will pan out."

FIELD OF SCREAMS: If there's a more dreaded field in the NFL than the temporary track at Paul Brown Stadium, it's the Astroturf at Philly's Veterans Stadium. It always gets the nod as the worst field in any NFL Players Association poll.

Bengals running back Corey Dillon played there as a rookie three years ago and got six yards per pop with 114 yards on 19 carries in a last-second 44-42 loss.

"It's hard. Cold," Dillon said. "That turf monster is something else. I would rather play on the field out there (at PBS) than play on the turf. I'll just do the best I can to try and protect my legs. . .If it was concrete, you have to get it done any way you can."

Dillon says it's no use worrying about what the surface , but the Bengals face a possible NFL fine for leaving their field uncovered before last Sunday's victory against Jacksonville even though referee Jeff Triplette agreed with the club not to put on the tarpaulin.

Dan Masonson, the AFC's information manager, said Wednesday a fine wouldn't be unprecedented.

"Teams have been fined for field-related matters," Masonson said. "It wouldn't be the first time."

THIS AND THAT: DT John Copeland (pulled thigh) has been upgraded to questionable and wants to play. . .RB Curtis Keaton (ankle) returned to practice for the first time in about a month Wednesday, but he probably won't be active. . .CB Robert Bean (knee) and MLB Adrian Ross (hand) are doubtful and all but out for Sunday, as is FB Clif Groce (knee). . .

Injured Brian Simmons and Darnay Scott popped into town for end-of-season physicals and found themselves in the news hub-bub of coach Dick LeBeau's extension. Scott could only shrug and be polite because as a wide receiver, he hasn't had much contact with him. Simmons, the middle linebacker, has always been a big LeBeau guy. Scott, who broke his leg Aug. 1, is running on a treadmill a couple of times a week.

Now that LeBeau is signed up long term, LT John Jackson hopes he's next. LeBeau would like him to return next year and Jackson reiterated he loves playing for him.

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