Roster plot thickens

5-29-03, 5:35 a.m.

Updated: 5-29-03, 10:30 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

If the Bengals have the rest of the NFL guessing on what they're going to do with Akili Smith post June 1, what about Smith?

He admitted he was stunned Tuesday to come into work and see free-agent quarterbacks Todd Husak and Greg Zolman in for a tryout. It clearly affirms that releasing him has crossed their minds and Smith, who thought last week they would keep him, isn't so sure now. Particularly after long-time reserves Canute Curtis and Brock Gutierrez were cut Tuesday.

"Yeah, it really did surprise me. I don't really know what they're looking at right now," Smith said Wednesday. "Then with a smile, he said, "We'll all know Monday morning. If I see (director of football operations) Jim Lippincott standing right here in front of my locker, I know I'm gone."

The plot got thicker Thursday when a NFL source outside the Bengals said the club worked out veteran Shane Matthews and has shown interest in signing the 10-year veteran who started several games for the Bears and Redskins the past few seasons. That came on the heels of the agent for eight-year veteran Jamie Martin saying earlier in the week the Bengals have made an inquiry about his client.

The Bengals are trying to figure out whether to keep Smith, or cut him and put a seasoned quarterback like Matthews or Martin between starter Jon Kitna and Carson Palmer to protect their No. 1 pick for at least the early part of the season, or cut him and sign a developmental guy at No. 3 behind Kitna and Palmer.

In Zolman, they're looking at developmental guy. In Husak they're looking at a former All-World quarterback in NFL Europe who might be both.

One thing is certain after Tuesday. Lewis isn't going to keep people around just because they've been here for awhile, or because they just got here. Curtis and Gutierrez were just one season into contract extensions, and fullback Mike Green had been here less than two months before he got his notice.

And the locker room noticed it's not business as usual, but just business.

"Before, if you were here, you were going to be here. That's no secret," said linebacker Brian Simmons. "We know it's a new thing. There's different leadership here. There's a different look at things. He had a certain amount of players when he got here, and he's going to bring in players he thinks are going to help us win with the kind of guys he likes. If you were here or not here, it doesn't mean a lot right now."

One of the reasons Gutierrez got cut was because right guard Mike Goff moved to center and long-time starting center Rich Braham moved out Gutierrez as a backup center when he signed as a backup center-guard.

"I was shocked when I found out," Goff said. "I know he's going to catch on with another team and do a great job, but it's a good example of what is going on here now. Look at a guy like Canute Curtis who was here just as long as Brock. Everybody is fighting for a job whether you're a six-year veteran or a rookie. It's just another reminder that there is no job security in the NFL."

They apparently feel comfortable with Goff and Braham anchoring the middle. Goff says he's more comfortable there since he made the switch for good earlier this month and says the on-field coaching sessions are smoothing the rough edges.

"The main thing is getting the center-quarterback exchange right," Goff said. "I find any quarterback to take a few snaps, and we go out there before practice and do it. The shot-gun snaps, too, so it's getting a lot better. Once I get to the point where I'm not thinking about the snap, the blocking will become easier."

That, of course, begs the question. Is Goff going to be snapping to Smith at the June 9-11 mandatory minicamp? The last person to ask is Smith, but he's got a good attitude about it. Not to mention a sense of humor. But he hopes they'll be as decisive as they were with the veterans released Tuesday.

"We'll just have to all keep an eye on Lippy," Smith said. "I just hope they don't keep me waiting around and they do it as quickly as they can. I like what Denver did with (quarterback) Brian Griese. They told him way back they were going to cut him after June 1 and tried to work out some things before then."

Tom Mills, the agent for Martin, said Wednesday he's talked to the Bengals only in terms of touching base and there has been no talk of a contract. But he said Martin, 33, is attracted to Cincinnati because he had a good relationship with quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese in St. Louis, where he threw seven touchdowns and 10 interceptions last season while Kurt Warner and Marc Bulger recovered from injuries. Martin completed 63.6 percent of his passes for a 71.7 passer rating.

Matthews, who, ironically, turns 33 June 1, nearly threw twice as many touchdown passes (11) as interceptions (six) this past season in Washington, where he ended up pretty much splitting stats with Patrick Ramsey. Matthews and Ramsey finished 12-13 in NFC passing, respectively, with Matthews' rating of 72.6 rating carved out of a 52 completion percentage.

If you're a seven-year veteran like Simmons who signed a six-year extension last year, nothing is going to surprise you at your position, or elsewhere.

"In this business, you've seen guys get cut more than once become perennial Pro Bowlers," Simmons said. "If you play in this league long enough, you're going to get your butt cut. Just because I didn't get cut yesterday doesn't mean I won't. I know some day down the road I'll get that same call."

Smith wonders if his comes as soon as Monday.

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