Official: Lewis ends Akili era

5-31-03, 11:10 a.m. Updated:
5-31-03, 1:15 p..m. Updated:
5-31-03, 5:20 p.m. Updated:
6-2-03, 11 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals opted for veteran's insurance Saturday when they agreed to terms with 10-year NFL quarterback Shane Matthews on a one-year deal that impacts several years in the past and the future.

The fallout came quickly. Kennard McGuire, the agent for erstwhile franchise quarterback Akili Smith, was told Saturday morning by Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis that the club plans to cut his client Monday morning.

At 10:58 a.m. Monday, the Akili Era came to an end when Bengals public relations director Jack Brennan sent a four-paragraph epitaph to the media, offically ending the run in which Smith went from the No. 3 pick in the 1999 NFL Draft to the No. 3 quarterback the past two years.

"This is the best course for the Bengals and for Akili," Lewis said in the press release. "We're pleased now with the lineup of other quarterbacks we've put in place, and we know Akili will get another opportunity. We credit him for the way he has stuck with it through this off-season, and we wish him well."

But Lewis had let McGuire know moments after confirming Matthews had signed his deal.

"Marv was good about it, and the team has been good to the family, and I've got a good enough relationship with the Bengals that both of us were able to get Akili an opportunity to find something as soon as possible," McGuire said. "I think it came down to what we talked about when we met with them before the draft. Akili wasn't going to be comfortable being the No. 3."

Smith expressed some bitterness about not getting another chance after getting benched following the 10th game of the 2000 season, but for the most part he was upbeat.

"It's a great day," Smith said from San Diego Saturday. "I'm looking to get a fresh start on my career. There was a fresh group of coaches that came in this year, but I didn't really think it was like a fresh start and that's what I'm going to get now.

"I guess I won't be leaving this weekend to get back for workouts," he said.

The Bengals apparently decided they need a seasoned spot starter like Matthews to back up starter Jon Kitna until they feel the draft's No. 1 overall pick, Carson Palmer, is comfortable enough with the offense. And the Matthews' move may mean they are content to make that next season after watching their last two quarterbacks of the future, Smith and David Klingler, struggle when they became the starter during their rookie seasons.

Lewis' defense saw Matthews up close last year when both worked in Washington and he threw nearly twice as many touchdown passes (11) as interceptions (six) for a 72.6 passer rating that came on 237 attempts and 124 completions for a 52.3 completion percentage. The 6-3, 195-pound Matthews, who floated between starter and backup, went 3-4 as a starter for the Redskins.

"Shane is an experienced guy who has been around the game," Lewis said.

Steve Mandell, the agent for Matthews, said the Bengals have been clear that Kitna is their No. 1 quarterback, and it appears that for next week's mandatory minicamp that Matthews goes in at No. 2 with Palmer No. 3 and college free agent Tommy Jones No. 4.

"The one thing people know about Shane Matthews is that he's a great guy, a non-controversial guy who wants to win and he'll do it in what ever role the team wants," Mandell said. "He's been around. He's played and won. He knows you need more than one quarterback on your staff. He's very impressed with the chemistry they've got going with Marvin Lewis."

The Bengals have to wait until post-June 1 to cut Smith, or else the pro-ration of his $10.8 million signing bonus would accelerate under this season's salary cap at about $4 million. On Monday, it will be just $1.8 million, but it certainly can't be viewed as a salary-cap savings. With Matthews possibly counting the veteran minimum $450,000 against the cap and Smith slated to make $530,000, the Bengals may save only about $80,000.

Matthews, ironically enough, turns 33 June 1. He's a Steve Spurrier product out of Florida who has been with three teams and has a 11-11 starting record in the NFL. He spent six of his seasons becoming the Bears' third all-time leading passer, and then was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week off last year's opener in a 327-yard effort against Arizona in his first game in Washington.

In 2002, Matthews tied career highs by playing eight games and starting seven. The first time he did it, he had his best season ever with the Bears in 1999 when he had a 80.6 passer rating with 10 touchdown passes and six interceptions. Injury short-circuited that season in which he got the Bears off to a 3-2 start, including a 184-yard game in Minnesota that led Chicago to its first division road win in 11 games.

The decision seems to have come down to simply production. Smith has a 3-14 record as a starter, has thrown just three touchdown passes in his last 382 attempts, and has a career passer rating of 52.8 with five touchdown passes, 13 interceptions and a completion percentage of 46.6.

Matthews' career rating is 74.4 with 30 touchdown passes and 24 interceptions on a nearly 60 percent completion rate (58.6), and he has a knack for coming up with a big game. Against the Patriots in 2000, he hit 15 straight passes during a 22-for-27 day for 239 yards.

Smith has said lately that he is responsible for some of the reasons why his career hasn't panned out and not responsible for some others. When Palmer signed his contract before last month's draft and Lewis took control of the team in his first offseason, Smith predicted Palmer would succeed because he was in a better situation.

Early on in Smith's career, coaches grumbled about his work ethic and study habits, but that appeared to change when Bob Bratkowski became the offensive coordinator in 2001.

Injuries and a 27-practice holdout in his first training camp also contributed to Smith's inability to translate the athleticism and accuracy of his senior season at Oregon (32 touchdown passes while averaging 10.14 yards per attempt) into the NFL. In his fourth NFL start during his rookie season, he severely sprained his right big toe and missed the last eight games of the season.

It was never a match from the start. After his rookie minicamp, Smith couldn't return to Cincinnati for six more weeks because Oregon's graduation was June 11 that year.

After getting benched late in the 2000 season following 10 starts he compiled the AFC's lowest passer rating, Smith lost out on quarterback derbies in 2001 and 2002 to veteran free agents the Bengals acquired that offseason.

"You could say that I was going to get a fresh start," said Smith of Lewis' hiring earlier this year that spawned the biggest coaching staff change in Bengals' history. "But I think the only thing that can do that is a change of scenery. I just don't know why they drafted me if all they were going to give me were those 10 games. To tell you the truth, when Brat came and then they brought in Kitna, I thought that was a wrap then."

In his only 2001 start, Smith led the Bengals on a game-opening 20-play touchdown drive against the Jets in which he accounted for 50 of the 81 yards, 35 on four-for-four passing and 15 yards rushing. He gave a glimpse of what he might be able to do with his arms and legs when he personally converted three third downs on two passes and a run.

But he tore his hamstring so severely getting hit running out of the pocket on the third series of the game that he needed surgery in the offseason to repair a 90-percent tear. His last start came in the fourth game of last season when the eventual Super Bowl champion Buccaneers held him to 12-for-33 passing and picked him off for a touchdown.

"Certainly the fact they're looking at others would seem to send a message," McGuire said. "It just looks it might be the time to get him jump-started elsewhere."

McGuire said he had a good conversation with Lewis Saturday morning.

"I basically told Marv that the kid needs to be tutored," McGuire said. "Except for those 10 games, and his senior year in college, he really hasn't played. If they had kept him and Carson, they would have had two guys with pretty much the same experience in back of Kitna."

Smith has a good relationship with Bengals President Mike Brown and understands why the club drafted Palmer.

"I think that's a move that came from the top and I can't blame them," Smith said. "You have to fill the seats and the fans wanted Carson."

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