BY GEOFF HOBSON
Quarterback Scott Mitchell is doubtful to play Sunday against the Steelers with a sprained medial ligament in his left knee that doesn't need surgery.
But his status as a Bengal next season is questionable. The only thing for certain is his 236-yard effort in New England put life in the pass offense for the first time this season and had the club feeling a little bit better even though Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe won the duel with a last drive that gave him 258 yards in the 16-13 loss.
Mitchell, working on a one-year deal, said Monday he's interested in staying even if Akili Smith is the quarterback of the future because he's not wild about moving to his fourth team in four years.
Mitchell's play gave a lift to Bengals President Mike Brown, but Brown isn't prepared to say if he'll make a run at re-signing Mitchell just yet.
"When we get a quarterback on that level, we're a competitive NFL team," Brown said. "Scott played on a par with Bledsoe and no one questions his standing in this league. He made us a live offense. P>"We want to get through this season to look at it," Brown said of Mitchell's future here. "We want the evidence of the whole season in front of us before we judge instead of just going off one game."
Coach Dick LeBeau offered another passionate defense for Smith Monday and Smith probably gets a shot to defend his honor this week at home because LeBeau indicated he'll keep playing if he produces.
Even if Smith is still the man, Mitchell is thinking Cincinnati might not be a bad spot to make home because he thinks he'll only get better.
"It's not so bad being somewhere where you're comfortable," Mitchell said. "Going to a brand new team every year is hard. Here you go into a situation where I know these guys, I know what they can do. I know the o ffense. I know in a year's time in this system I would be even better. It's hard to start over every single year. It's not necessarily so bad being here."
The unknowns, of course, are flying around. It's going to be hard for Brown to keep the same offensive scheme for the NFL's lowest-rated passing game. What will Smith do while Mitchell heals? When will Mitchell heal?
The only known right now is that Mitchell offered evidence to the Bengals' receivers that they just aren't young and dumb. Peter Warrick (seven catches), Craig Yeast (four) and Danny Farmer (three) all had career days. Warrick had one catch of 22 yards and Yeast had two 20-yarder after the wideouts had just one 20-yard catch since Sept. 17.
Warrick finally was a factor with his most productive day catching since Opening Day.
"Scott threw him some balls only an experienced quarterback does and gave him an opportunity to make plays," said receivers coach Steve Mooshagian. "He threw a lot of balls before he was out of his break, so Pete was able to catch it running versus having to come back or find a hole. When he came out his route, there was the ball.
"That showed you his improvement," Mooshagian said of Warrick. "How far he's come. You wonder was it him that's improved that much, or is it just the type of ball thrown."
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Mooshagian and tight ends coach Frank Verducci saw the difference in Mitchell and Smith immediately from the Foxboro press box Sunday. The veteran had, "a clock in his head." Mitchell got rid of the ball quicker because he made quicker decisions.
In two instances of the wideouts getting double covered, Mitchell found tight end Tony McGee over the middle for a first down and later found fullback Nick Williams alone in the flat for another first down. That dump pass worked because it was thrown so the 260-pound Williams could take it while running downhill.
"It's pretty much the same patterns, the same stuff we've been running the last couple of weeks," Mooshagian said. "He was able to find adjustments on the run, which is tougher on a young quarterback."
Still, the receivers are young. When Mitchell threw his only interception of the day, Farmer, the third receiver, didn't make an adjustment against a weak-side safety blitz.
"He just hasn't played that spot a lot," Mooshagian said. "He had four of those to make during the game and that's the only one he didn't see."
But the Bengals weren't too sure Warrick was correctly called for a false start on third-and-one that killed one of the Bengals' two fourth-quarter drives. A review of the tape indicated one Bengal lined up near Warrick was late getting off the ball.
"It was nice to get involved, to be a part of it," Farmer said. "Obviously Scott's got experience. The ball is going to be there, and if you're not there, it's your fault. I know it's tough on Akili to sit and watch, but he's a strong enough guy to learn from something like this."
After 11 years in the league , Mitchell may be learning the grass isn't always greener.
"People say you're crazy to go to Cincinnati," Mitchell said. "It's not a secret that this place has a reputation around the league. They haven't won in a long time.
"But peope here have been great to me. I've been to four places (Miami, Detroit, Baltimore, Cincinnati) and there's no one Utopia. There's no one place that has everything. This place isn't much different than other places I've been."