BY GEOFF HOBSON
Akili Smith's DUI arrest hasn't changed a Bengals quarterback situation that has been in flux since Boomer Esiason went network three years ago.
The club seeks a quarterback via free agency, but Bengals President Mike Brown also said Friday he isn't ruling out finding one in April's NFL Draft to compete with Smith for the starting job.
And the agent for Scott Mitchell gets the sense his client is headed to free agency March 2, even though Mitchell finished three of the Bengals' four wins last year and took over the starting job 10 games into the season.
"Either they think we're going into the market or they want to go looking in the market before they make a commitment," said Tony Agnone, who hasn't received much of a response from the team after a few talks.
"It looks like he's headed to the market, but let me be clear that there would be no hesitancy on our part to do a deal," Agnone said. "He thinks it's a team on the rise. He really likes playing for (head coach) Dick LeBeau, he gets along with Kenny (quarterbacks coach Anderson) and I know (new offensive coordinator Bob) Bratkowski is a good coach. But it's up to them right now."
Mitchell is perplexed why the Bengals haven't come calling. He thought he performed well for a guy who played a handful of quarters in 1998 and 1999 and spent much of 2000 with virtually no practice snaps behind Smith. Plus, he started the last four games of the season on a sprained knee.
"Yeah, I'm a little disappointed and surprised," said Mitchell Friday of the Bengals choosing not to approach him about a deal yet.
"I think I was part of the reason why Dick got the job there on a long–term basis," Mitchell said. "I was hurt and I still played and I thought I did pretty well under the circumstances. I know I'm very capable of doing a real good job given a fair opportunity to compete. If I'm not the best guy, then give it to the guy who is."
LeBeau has already said all 22 spots are up for a fair fight. But for the moment, the Bengals are leaving all their options open at quarterback.
Some pockets of the organization would like Mitchell back because of how he played late in the season in difficult throwing weather, particularly driving the team to 10 points in the final 4:37 of the 17-14 victory over Jacksonville in single-digit temperatures.
And he won the confidence of several veteran players in his five starts in which the club went 2-3.
P>But others note Mitchell had a worse passing rating than Smith (52.8-50.8) and threw two more interceptions (8-6) in nearly 30 fewer throws.
"We're looking to add another quarterback and it may be Scott Mitchell or it may be another unrestricted free agent," Brown said. "Or failing that, it could be in the draft. There will be quarterbacks, and not just in the first round. But in the mid and late rounds, and some we have regard for."
It's unlikely the Bengals will opt for a quarterback in the first round, but if Virginia Tech's Michael Vick fell to No. 4 it would no doubt make for an interesting debate.
But a guy like Florida State's Chris Weinke could get talked about
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in the second round and Oklahoma's Josh Heupel could be there on the draft's second day.
But Mitchell, who turned 33 last month, says he would be here tomorrow.
"I liked it there and I'd like to go back," Mitchell said. "I don't think it's a money issue. I just think they don't know what they want to do yet. Maybe they do and I'm not part of it. If that's the case, just tell me. I'm not into the mystery game."
It's all a mystery because Bratkowski is putting together a new playbook and no one knows how it's going to come out. But Bratkowski is thinking about visiting with Mitchell in Florida soon.
"I'm looking forward to that," Mitchell said.
Bratkowski is also planning to visit Smith in San Diego. Last year, Smith started working in Cincinnati in mid-February, but LeBeau has moved it back to mid-March or so because of the weather and to let Bratkowski get settled.
From what is known of Smith's arrest, Brown doesn't think it is a roadblock in his development. A hurdle, but not a roadblock.
"Unless there's something I don't know, this shouldn't interfere with his career," Brown said. "Clearly it's serious and he has to deal with it. But he should be able to return here to practice and play."
Which Mitchell wouldn't mind doing.
"In this business, people tend to get things done at the 11th hour," Mitchell said. "I know this. Wherever I go, whatever I do, I will be ready to be a big contributor."