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Mitchell: Future is now

8-21-01, 12:25 a.m.



Akili Smith, who was supposed to be the Bengals' once and future quarterback, hopes Tuesday's MRI will clear up any doubts about his improving but lingering sore right shoulder.

Then he hopes he'll be able to throw from scrimmage for the first time in more than a week as he tries to clear up the doubts that have him running as the Bengals' third quarterback behind Jon Kitna and Scott Mitchell.

Meanwhile, at age 33, Mitchell says there is no reason for the Bengals to look at him as a stopgap, one-year solution. That he could have a future here for the next five years or so, too.

"This league is fickle year to year, I don't know how you can look beyond a year. Especially with free agency," Mitchell said after Wednesday's practice here at Georgetown College.

"It's not like this is going to be my last year and I've only got a year left to play," Mitchell said. "I'm only 33. I have more than one or two years left. Spending four or five years in this league with one team is a long time. Absolutely I do (see the chance to do it with the Bengals)."

Mitchell stakes his claim to the starting job Saturday night in Paul Brown Stadium's pre-season opener against Buffalo, when he becomes the third quarterback to start in the Bengals' third pre-season game while trying to become the first starter to lead them to a score.

With his players back Monday from a three-day weekend courtesy of a bye, head coach Dick LeBeau indicated again the Bills' game is the final step of the three-man quarterback derby and that he'll probably name his Opening Day starter next Sunday or Monday.

LeBeau has yet to reveal if he'll stick with the same rotation, which means Smith would work second and Kitna third against Buffalo.

Although offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski says the injury doesn't disqualify Smith, it's clear the extra work benefited Mitchell. Conventional wisdom has Kitna slightly ahead of Mitchell. Since Smith has taken more sacks, fumbled more, and spent more timeouts, he looks to be third.

Yet LeBeau has run anything but a conventional quarterback competition.

It's been incomparably fair.

How do you know?

All three quarterbacks say, "Dick LeBeau has been a man of his word."

Asked if he think he's running third, Smith said, "Yeah, but I know in an instant I can go from three to two to one. It's been going that way. It's been juggling around. I just hope I get to go second against Buffalo and not make any mental mistakes. I don't really care where I am now. I've still got two (pre-season) games left."

Smith hasn't been able to throw with any velocity since taking an unknown shot to his shoulder in the Aug. 10 victory in Detroit. Bengals doctor Rob Heidt Jr., said Monday Smith has shown marked improvement since being unable to raise the arm a week ago and that the area of concern is a small bruise in front of the shoulder.

"It's a lot better and he's able to throw lightly, but he still hasn't passed 100 percent

of my tests," Heidt said. "We never really had a good explanation how it happened and he couldn't remember. We just want to get as much information as we can to protect Akili."

The time on the shelf has galled Smith. He admitted, "I felt sick to my stomach watching Mitch get those extra reps. With Kitna out (for a few days with back spasms), I could have gotten some extra snaps, stayed after practice, and thrown some extra routes, but I missed out on everything."

Smith says he wants to play no matter what his arm feels like Saturday.

"I'm not blaming anybody but myself," Smith said. "I'm the one that got hurt. It happened to me. If I get any reps this week, I want to make sure I play in the game no matter how my arm feels. If I don't have any mental mistakes after not practicing for a week and a half, that's something I'm ( trying to focus on)."

Bratkowksi thinks Smith's arm will be ready enough for him to get enough snaps this week to get game ready.

"It looks like it's been getting better and better," Bratkowksi said. "If he starts throwing tomorrow, or Wednesday, he'd have even longer than a usual week to get ready. We still have to wait on that to see where he is health-wise."

Kitna isn't sure when he'll get the call Saturday, but he is sure about one thing.

"Let's face it, the first-team offense hasn't blown the doors off anybody," Kitna said. "Everything counts. The most important thing is when we're in there (against the first-team defense). It's a combination of things why we haven't produced with the No. 1 offense (pass protection, no Corey Dillon), and the quarterback play hasn't been perfect all the time."

Kitna knows he rung up 10 points in his four series against the Lions, including a two-minute drive that yielded a field goal. But he said that's tempered by the fact it came against the second-team defense.

Mitchell engineered 17 points in the second half against second- and third-teamers, including the final-gun drive. But he doesn't think that hurts in the evaluation.

"I don't think it's just going to come down to who ever does well against the first team," said Mitchell, who tries to do well against the first team Saturday. "I'm sure that will figure into it. But I think it's also going to come down to who was the most consistent in practice, who was the most productive at the end of the game regardless of who was in there. I think it's a lot of factors.

"I also think it's going to be the guy they feel gives them the best chance to win," Mitchell said. "And I don't know who that is yet."

During one practice last week, Mitchell was the only healthy quarterback. During two practices, it was just Mitchell and Scott Covington. He admits it helped him get into a rhythm not easy to find when splitting snaps in the previous weeks.

"It let them see what I can do when I have the whole thing in my total control," Mitchell said. "I think they have a good feel for what my tempo is and my pace."

Once upon a time, the perception was Mitchell didn't have a shot with his one-year, $800,000 deal pitted against Smith's $10.8 million bonus and Kitna's fresh four-year free-agent deal that can max out at $12 million.

But even he's a believer now. The 33-year-old guy who started the last two Bengals' wins this past December has a shot at starting this September.

"I think that it says a lot that it doesn't matter how much you make," said Mitchell, the once and future Bengals quarterback?

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