QB tales

6-12-03, 5:45 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Akili Smith might become a Saint (or a Packer or a Jet), but Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski is in heaven with his quarterbacks situation heading into training camp.

For the first time in his three seasons here, Bratkowski has a defined pecking order. Jon Kitna is the established No. 1, Shane Matthews is the savvy No. 2, and with Carson Palmer, "we've got an extremely talented rookie. I'm very, very pleased with the makeup of the quarterback situation right now."

Although he signed just six days before this week's minicamp, Matthews showed why he earns his money. A NFL quarterback can get the ball to his receivers accurately and quickly even if he doesn't know all of their first names.

"He looked like what he is," Bratkowski said. "A smart 10-year guy."

Palmer has also been as advertised, and if that

meant he looked bad on one play throwing an interception for a touchdown to a defensive end, it also meant he looked good at times with a powerful arm that got the ball to places faster and farther downfield in recent memory.

"He got better every day," Bratkowski said.

Here's how Palmer and Bratkowski broke down that interception by Duane Clemons near the end of Tuesday afternoon's practice against a blitz. It wasn't the throw, or the decision to throw, it was the tardiness of the read.

"It won't happen again," Palmer said. "It was a stupid play. It was an exotic blitz I had never seen before. I've got to get it out of my hands and not take the sack. It's the first time they did anything out of a three-man front. The protection changed during the play because they were shifting, but I've got to make that read quicker. I'll be better prepared by game time."

The Bengals have been quite pleased with how Palmer has progressed learning the offense. At some point they know he will have seen everything and by then they hope he'll be able to respond by getting rid of the ball if a play breaks down so there is no sack or turnover.

"Working from one side of the blitz and then back to the other way, you can't do that," Bratkowski said. "He worked one side and if he knows that doesn't work, he's got to get rid of it and throw it out-of-bounds."

**

SMITH, SAINTS HUDDLE:** Meanwhile, former Bengals quarterback Akili Smith visited Saints' practice Thursday and talked to the coaching staff and team officials. He also huddled with No. 1 quarterback Aaron Brooks between snaps and said late Thursday afternoon he'll have a new team by Monday. He said he's going back home to San Diego to mull offers from the Saints, Packers and Jets.

New Orleans looks to be the best fit because of the Saints' room under the salary cap, the lack of traffic at quarterback, and his connection with Saints quarterbacks coach Mike Sheppherd. But he also had a good day in Green Bay Wednesday when he worked out for the Packers and was reunited with old friends from Cincinnati, linebackers coach Mark Duffner and fullback Nicolas Luchey.

"Good enough to be offered a contract," said Smith of his workout. "Green Bay just blew me away with all the tradition, playing with Brett Favre, and being on "Monday Night Football," three or four times."

But Smith also felt comfortable in New Orleans, where he and Brooks re-kindled a friendship from the East-West Shrine Game before the 1999 NFL Draft. But Sheppherd is the main connection there."

"Shep is probably the main reason I'm down here," Smith said. "He's got a real straight-forward approach and we go back along way."

Sheppard first met Smith 11 years ago when he was the quarterbacks coach at the University of California and Smith was a high school senior at a Cal summer camp where he was named the Most Valuable Player. Smith verbally committed to Cal, but ended up going the junior college route after trying his hand at baseball.

"We think he's a talent," Sheppard told "The New Orleans Times-Picayune. "We think we have a lot to offer him and it's a good fit. Now it's all up to him."

But Smith knows it's a much different playbook and not the same version of the West Coast offense the Bengals employed when they drafted him.

"As they were talking, I tried to relate it to what Bruce (Coslet) and Kenny (Anderson) had, and I didn't hear a lot that was familiar," Smith said. "It's completely different from what we have in Cincinnati now, so where ever I go I want to get there as quickly as possible to learn the playbook."

Smith reportedly wants a one-year deal, but the Saints want him to sign a two-year contract because backup Todd Bouman is working on a one-year deal. Smith said two years isn't a deal breaker, but he prefers one.

"I figure that this first year is going to be tough because I'm going to be in a new system," Smith said.

Saints head coach Jim Haslett must know the irony. The year before he got the job, the Bengals turned down then Saints coach Mike Ditka's offer of eight draft picks to choose Smith with the No. 3 pick in 1999.

"He got to see how we practice and the tempo that we like," Haslett told the Times-Picayune. "It's a chance for Akili to get his feet back under him after his experience in Cincinnati and we think we can make him a better football player. He's a big, talented kid with a strong arm."

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