NFL talks up Akili

3-29-01, 8:00 p.m.

PALM DESERT, Calif. _ Let the round table discussion begin.

The topic of the day is, "Akili Smith: Bust or Blooming Bonanza?"

If majority still rules in post 2000 election America, then Smith still keeps a mandate that is now razor thin because of poor production and an offseason DUI.

But he's more popular in a hotel lobby teeming with NFL types than he is in a Cincinnati mall.

And maybe even in some pockets of the Paul Brown Stadium offices. The clear-cut verdict is the Bengals are nuts if they write him off after 15 starts. Young receivers, a coaching change, problems at left tackle, poor team. The experts don't see enough from his 2000 season to sentence him yet to the desert with David Klingler and Freddie Childress.

"If you put Akili Smith with the Minnesota Vikings instead of Daunte Culpepper last year, I'll tell you what would have happened," says Ozzie Newsome, architect of the Ravens' Super Bowl title. "I think there would have been a good chance he would have been able to do what Culpepper did."

But the round table also pretty much agrees in this, his third season, he better do it now.

"He's got all the tools. His arm strength is so good He can make all the throws," says Bill president Tom Donahoe. "What he's got to do is learn to play quarterback in this league. This is probably the critical year for him to show everyone he can do it."

Before his third year, Brett Favre got that message from then Packers head coach Mike Holmgren.

"I've always said by the third year, you've got to know exactly where you're headed with the guy," says Holmgren, now coach of the Seahawks. " The timetable is a little different if he didn't play (every snap) because playing and learning is a lot different than watching and learning. Akili is still a young man."

Bob Ferguson, the Arizona personnel chief who convinced the Cardinals they should stake their future on a resourceful gamer named Jake Plummer, can't get enough of Smith's sheer physical talent when he puts him in the VCR. To Ferguson, the people who like to make this game complicated can foul up what's on tape. He sees Bruce Coslet's offense is no longer in place and thinks the kid has a shot at being re-born in a new system.

"I like him. I'll always like Akili Smith," Ferguson says. "We overscout. We overcoach. Bruce Coslet probably had one of the best playbooks in the league. But he tried to use it all sometimes on Sunday."

Vikings head coach Dennis Green got his man with the 11th pick in the class

of '99 Draft in which Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb and Smith went with the top three choices. Green had Smith at the top with McNabb and Culpepper, but in his mind there were reasons beyond Cris Carter and Randy Moss and Robert Smith why Culpepper ended up in the Pro Bowl this year and why Green didn't trade up to get Smith or McNabb.

"We liked Daunte because he was bigger, more physical and even though he played at Central Florida, he had started for four years," Green says. "Akili was a late bloomer as an athlete. . .Daunte played in a pro system. They usually had him in the shotgun. His coach had been a pro quarterback."

But Green still likes Smith's arm: "The ball jumps out of there. . .You can't ever give up on him simply because he has all the tools. He can't do it by himself. . . It's much easier to learn and sit, then to go out there and learn and do it at the same time."

Holmgren and Green may disagree on how to break a quarterback in. But it should be recalled that at the dawn of last season, Smith looked excellent learning under fire.

"When I saw him in the preseason, he looked like he was on track to do it," Donahoe says. "He was making progress. What you can't overestimate is the loss of Darnay Scott. He went in there with all those young receivers and that's hard to do."

Of course, if playing quarterback in this league was just all about talent, braniacs like Bart Starr and Bob Griese would need a ticket to get into Canton. The unspoken factor is what Smith talked so openly about last week:

The mental game.

Which is why some think an open competition with Jon Kitna will do Smith good.

"It won't hurt," Donahoe says. "Competition might wake him up and show him that he's got to work a little harder."

Holmgren figures it shouldn't matter.

"They're both big boys. That's the way it goes," Holmgren says. "If the player is as good as you think he is, then he needs to accept that."

Dallas head coach Dave Campo, who prepared for Smith this past season for the Cowboys' game against Cincinnati, saw future Hall-of-Famer Troy Aikman "get the dog beat out of him," as a rookie.

"Akili had to be the man on the football team right away and it was a team trying to establish an identity and that's a hard thing for a guy to do," Campo says. "If the guy shows you he can do it once, he can probably do it again. It's a matter of consistency. That's when you find out if a guy plays in this league for 10 years or two years. . .I don't think Akili has had enough of an opportunity to do that yet."

The round table is complete. It convenes the same time next year, when there should be more evidence and less talk.

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