BY GEOFF HOBSON
No one is saying it definitively, but it appears Scott Mitchell begins this week of practice as the Bengals starting quarterback.
As long as his sprained left knee holds up.
"I would not rule him out of starting but I'm not ready to say right now that he will start in the game," said coach Dick LeBeau Monday. "It depends on how his leg comes along."
According to Bengals trainer Paul Sparling, the leg is coming along fine. In fact, 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.
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 Akili Smith, LeBeau was clear. Also clear is that LeBeau is 2-7 since taking over for Bruce 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."
The less-than-decisive call comes a day after Smith's better-but-not-decisive effort in a 48-28 loss to the Steelers.
Mitchell was upgraded to probable after the game. He went on the Paul Brown Stadium field about three hours before Sunday's game, but determined his knee couldn't take the full-speed motion of setting up to hand off or drop back into the pocket.
"Whatever the coach wants," Mitchell said. "I'm trying to get myself ready."
Smith refused to talk to the media Monday and hasn't spoken since LeBeau benched him two weeks ago.
Smith isn't making any friends in the Cincinnati media, which could end up hurting him as much as bad stats. But his teammates thought he got rid of the ball quicker and played with more confidence.
"Just being with him in the huddle, being on the line, he was making the calls and audibles much better," said center Rich Braham. "Better than what he was doing and that was great to see."
But like right tackle Willie Anderson, they weren't going to tell LeBeau what to do.
"He did what he's supposed to do. Move the ball," Anderson said. "I can't make that decision."
Smith looked sharp in the first half, hitting his first five passes for 49 yards. One of those was a 21-yarder to Danny Farmer, Smith's first pass of 20 yards or more to a wide receiver since a 22-yarder to Craig Yeast Oct. 15 against these Steelers. In the fourth quarter, he hooked up on another 22-yarder to Yeast.
With 2:50 left in the game, Smith floated a five-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Peter Warrick to break his drought of 30 straight quarters without a scoring pass.
But there was also plenty of evidence pointing to Mitchell:
_In the second half, Smith hit five of 14 passes to finish 10-for 20 for 129 yards. It was the ninth time in 11 starts this season he failed to complete more than 50 percent of his passes.
_For the 10th time this season, he didn't throw for 200 yards and it was the seventh straight start he didn't throw for more than 137 yards. That counts the Denver game, which he left in the first half after a hit to the neck.
_In the sixth game this season, Smith lost a fumble Sunday on a sack. Steelers outside linebacker Jason Gildon broken open a 31-21 game late in the third quarter when he came up the middle on a stunt to force a fumble at the Bengals' 7 that led to a Jerome Bettis touchdown on the next play.
Smith very nearly did it again late in the game, but right tackle Willie Anderson fell on the fumble.
But that was Smith's 14th fumble of the season (he's lost half of them), third of the game, and puts him dangerously close to the Tony Banks comparisons.
Banks, the backup Ravens quarterback, set the NFL record for St. Louis with 21 fumbles in a season in 1997. He's closing in on the third most, which is 17 and is held by three more quarterbacks in Dan Pastorini, Warren Moon and Randall Cunningham.
Still, Smith looked good until the Bengals fell behind to the vaunted pass rush of the Steelers' linebackers. His guys thought he was more relaxed.
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"Akili was snapping the ball and getting rid of it," said running back Brandon Bennett. "He did a lot of good things. He was throwing the ball in there. He was excited to be back in there."
Bennett thinks it might have helped Smith that he watched Mitchell have the Bengals' most productive passing day of the season last week (228 yards) in New England.
"It gave him a chance to clear his mind," Bennett said. "He could sit back and see it instead of trying to react. The pressure was off him."
Running back Corey Dillon said Smith was relaxed and Farmer noticed he was more comfortable and, "for the most part put the ball right there."
Anderson told him before the game, "Just be Akili. When you throw a pass, just complete it, don't try to win the game by yourself."
Anderson said, "He was being accurate. He was just doing what he had to do."
Braham took the blame for the high shot-gun snap that sailed over Smith's head on the last play of the third quarter and turned into Gildon's 22-yard touchdown run.
"The field was crappy, but it's my fault," Braham said. "I was making a (line) call and waiting for the cadence, but that's stuff I do all the time. It just shows you what happens when you might lose concentration for a second."
Braham thought on the play where Gildon sacked and stripped Smith, Gildon came up the right inside instead of from the outside because of a stunt.
"Whatever it was, it was fast," Braham said.
LeBeau liked the way Smith moved ("He showed some pretty good signs of where he can go with the ball with his mobility,") and liked the way Smith was throwing enough to try an on-side kick after the Warrick touchdown.
LeBeau said he did think about using Scott Covington. Covington was the No. 2 quarterback with Mitchell relegated to emergency status.
"I thought about it all week," LeBeau said. "I would like to get Scott (Covington) some snaps in the game. I really would. But the reason I called the timeout and took the on-side kick (was) to just keep working on Akili because he was throwing the ball pretty well and to see if our guys couldn't go down and get another touchdown."