BY GEOFF HOBSON
Akili Smith isn't the only one noticing what his '99 classmates are doing in the real world of the NFL, where on-the-job training of the second-year quarterbacks is in full session. After watching Philadelphia spring a 41-14 shocker in Dallas on Opening Day, one of Smith's teammates casually mentioned, "Donovan McNabb did his thing."
And Smith said, "No, Duce Staley did his thing. McNabb did a good job, but Staley is the one who engineered that victory."
With Staley running for 201 yards, McNabb only had to throw 28 passes for 130 yards. Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper made life easy for himself by running for three touchdowns and Robert Smith's 109 yards on the ground made it cushy enough so Culpepper just had to throw it 23 times for 190 yards to beat Chicago. Bucs quarterback Shaun King got 110 rushing yards combined from Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn, so he only had go up top 24 times for 167 yards to win in Foxboro.
"Why not me and Smith?" asked Bengals running back Corey Dillon. "It's our time."
The message is clearer than Dillon smashing off tackle. The three best ways to protect an inexperienced quarterback in his fifth NFL start Sunday is to run left, run right and run up the middle.
But Dillon knows it probably won't be like last year against Cleveland, when he rolled up 360 yards on them in two games at 6.4 yards per gash. Dillon knows since he broke Jim Brown's NFL single game rookie rushing record with 246 yards against Tennessee, the Titans have held him to 314 in the following four games.
Now it may be dawning on people why coach Bruce Coslet pulled Dillon after three quarters with 192 yards during last season's 44-28 win over the Browns. They're already mad. Why get them frothing?
"Just with the experience of Tennessee after I broke the record, they've been tough, real stingy," Dillon said. "It's like they've got a vendetta out for me. I'm pretty sure it's the same thing with Cleveland. I'm pretty sure their coach is saying, 'You must stop 28 no matter what.' I'll have my work cut out for me."
Smith has been cutting out his own work. Instead of going home after Tuesday's practice, he hung around the facility waiting to get the game plan at 8 p.m. and eating dinner with the coaches. He stayed until 9, zipping through offensive coordinator Ken Anderson's coach's video station that contains video clips of how the Browns align up front and in the secondary against each formation.
Guess who watched all those "Class of '99" features this past weekend on CNN, ESPN, CBS and ABC. But who had to go the FBI to find his name?
"I'm used to it. It's been happening my whole life," Smith said of the few mentions. "It definitely fires you up to see McNabb go into Dallas and pull out a big victory, and Culpepper rush for three touchdowns. (Cade) McNown lost, but he had a big day. It definitely gets you fired up. (The lack of attention is) not disrespect at all. I just haven't had a chance to prove myself yet. I get my chance on Sunday." . . .
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But Smith agrees with Dillon. Running the ball won't be a lark. The improvement of the Browns' front four is what has caught his eye on film.
"They're tough," Dillon said. "Jacksonville was struggling with them in the first half. They're hungry. We need to bring our A game. I've got to put my hard hat on and go to work."
The Browns finished last in the NFL in rush defense last season. But they have three new starters on the defensive line - including No. 1 draft pick Courtney Brown at left end _ and a new defensive coordinator in Romeo Crennel. Brown (Penn State) and free agents Keith McKenzie (Green Bay) and Orpheus Roye (Pittsburgh) helped stuff the Jaguars on less than three yards per carry.
Of course, that was primarily against some running back named Stacey Mack and against an offensive line without three starters. But the defense that had the fewest sacks in the league last year with 25 had four on Sunday.
And Bengals left guard Scott Rehberg has a better idea than most about how far the Browns have improved up front, since he worked against them all last year in practice.
"They look much more physical," Rehberg said. "They looked real solid against Jacksonville. They have a new scheme, a new coordinator. They have a more sound defense. I don't want to say they were scatter-brained (last year), but these guys are more physical and sound."
Rehberg and center Rich Braham are key because they are the semi-unknowns for an offensive line that dominated Cleveland last year. Rehberg plays his first game in the Bengals' system for the suspended Matt O'Dwyer and Braham is playing his first game of the year after missing all the preseason games with a knee injury.
"Scott's a smart guy who has played in the league and we've had two weeks of practice together," Braham said. "He actually talks more than Matt. Matt's the kind of guy who just goes out and plays. If Scott's confused, or something isn't right, he'll talk it out. We'll be fine. The only thing I'm worried about is my wind and how hot it might get. if it's like this (cool) week, it will be great."
Tight end Tony McGee, poised to make his 104th straight start Sunday, has seen it all. He knows what the running game means to Smith and the Bengals.
"You can't let a young guy like that throw nearly every time," McGee said. "We've got to establish the run and put him in third-and-short situations. (The Browns) play a lot of cover 2 (a deep zone), so if you can't run against that, you're in trouble because it's the only defense you can really run on because all the others have eight men in the box. But we'll see. Teams have been known to change the way they do things when they come to Cincinnati."
Fullback Clif Groce is lobbying hard to stick with the run.
"You can't throw 30, 35, 40 times. Who are you? Dan Marino?" Groce asked. "I think we have a better idea of what we want to do this year. I think we're a more ball control team. You've got to run to keep the pressure off the young quarterback, and Akili's the kind of guy who can pick you apart. Like darts. He's a great athlete, but peope forget how he can hit that short pass and keeps drives going."