QBs: Better late than. . .?

8-7-01, 10:55 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ The plan to start Akili Smith this Friday had been hatched a few hours before Smith even touched the ball last Saturday in Chicago.

"After he told me I would probably start against Detroit," Smith said of his pre-game chat with head coach Dick LeBeau, "it gave me a lift. It really settled me down."

And isn't that what Smith's battle for the Bengals' No. 1 job is all about? Mind over matter? Nerve over nerves?

Veteran tight end Tony McGee and a couple of his teammates watching Smith run the quarterback position in the fourth quarter and overtime against the Bears said to each other, "Look at Akili. He looks in control."

"That's a good sight to see," McGee said.

When Smith returned to practice this week after leading the Bengals to their only touchdown in the pre-season opener, one club official observed, "it's like he's a different guy."

Not so, Smith says. Same guy in a different offense. An offense, he says, that allows him to view only half the field, quicken his decisions, and liberate the stricter rules of last year in letting him do more of what he did at Oregon.

"It kind of makes me laugh," Smith said. "I'm the same guy doing what I've been doing since the first day of camp. It's just that people look at you differently once you play better."

When LeBeau made Smith's start official at Tuesday's news conference, he also all but gave Scott Mitchell the start against Buffalo in the Aug. 25 opener at Paul Brown Stadium.

The best-case scenario for LeBeau would have been if Smith, Mitchell or Jon Kitna set themselves apart from July 21 so he could name the starter after the game against the Lions and have things in place for next week's bye, when the Bengals don't have a game.

But on Tuesday, LeBeau said he'll probably decide on his Opening Day quarterback after the Buffalo game.

Which is just five days before the Aug. 30 pre-season finale at home against the Colts.

Which is just 11 days before the Sept. 9 regular-season opener against the Patriots at home.

Which is virtually unheard of in NFL circles and has caused some concern here in certain pockets of Bengaldom.

Traditionally, that's about the time the No. 1 quarterback and the first-team offense cuts back after six weeks of taking reps as the first group.

Late August isn't the traditional time to start cranking it up.

"We have said from the first time we stood up here that we are not going to necessarily be traditionalists," LeBeau said, "particularly not in this training camp because we

think we have a unique

situation and we think (we) have a lot of improving to do. So whatever the quote, book, is, we're kind of re-writing that as we go. We will make those decisions as we cross that bridge."

Mitchell, a 12-year veteran, doesn't think it's going to be a problem if he is to be named the man Aug. 27.

"It will have to be enough time," Mitchell said. "I don't see it as a problem for me. I've got a lot of reps out there. I think we all have. I think we've had enough good work to this point where I think the transition should be OK."

McGee, dean of the Bengals' offense, knows the ideal scenario is to have the starting quarterback decided before camp starts.

"I don't think it's too late, but I don't think it's too soon, either," McGee said. "You've got to get things solidified. But you have the situation we have. You definitely have to get a feel for his cadence, anticipation."

For instance, McGee said he hasn't been in the huddle very much with Smith this week even though Smith is going to be working with the No. 1s in the game. That's because the snaps are still pretty much evenly split among the three.

But McGee has worked with the trio enough to sense some things.

"You know Scott is going to throw it quicker, Kitna is a real relaxed guy, Akili is more likely to run than the other two," McGee said. "You're starting to get a feel."

Wide receiver Peter Warrick isn't too concerned about getting chemistry with guys with whom he's been working for the past three weeks.

"I've caught balls from all of them," Warrick said. "In individuals. In team. Seven-on-seven. When you talk about starting a game, that doesn't mean much to me. It's the plays you make during the game and who finishes the game."

As for Smith, he's just looking at Friday. He figures he's going to work a quarter and a half, a stretch in which he feels it is imperative he steer the first offense to at least a touchdown.

"Or a touchdown and a field goal, or two touchdowns," Smith said. "I want to be efficient and I want to show them I can throw it down the field as well."

LeBeau, master psychologist, seemed to hit just the right note with Smith on Saturday. He tried to do it again Tuesday with positive reinforcement while emphasizing that Friday isn't exactly the crossroads of Smith's three-year career.

"He's a fine athlete," LeBeau said. "He has ample intelligence. He was a great leader in college, there is no reason why he can't be that at the professional level. I've said continually that this is a position that you have to be patient with. I believe that. I do not believe that this week or next week is the determining factor in Akili Smith's career. I'm glad to see him make some progress. I hope that he relaxes and plays the same way against Detroit that he finished against Chicago."

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