BY GEOFF HOBSON
Akili Smith wanted to put it in headlines after the 24-7 loss to the Browns.
"Smith Admits He Played Poorly."
"That's the way it was," said a crestfallen Smith today after he was sacked seven times and threw his first two interceptions of the season. "Make that the headline. Simple as that. If I had played better, we would have won the ball game. I never would have imagined playing so poorly because I came into this game with so much confidence.
"I put a lot of pressure on myself," Smith said. "This game we had two weeks to prepare. Everybody knows about the rivalry (with Browns quarterback Tim Couch). I was trying to down play that and stay focused on the game. It didn't work out. (His rookie receivers) were open, I played poorly today. The rivalry, the stadium opener, the 65,000 (fans), everything that goes with the territory. I wasn't as poised as I was in the preseason."
But right tackle Willie Anderson didn't think it belonged in headlines. After seeing Smith on the verge of tears in the training room, Anderson thought the 15-for-43 passing day for 250 yards deserved a footnote.
"A lot of people around here didn't help him out today," Anderson said. "We can't expect him to come in and win a ballgame by himself. One of our goals was to get the ground game going. If we can't get (running back) Corey Dillon 100 yards week in and week out, or average a lot of yards per carry, then Akili won't win it by himself. We've got two rookie receivers that have seen five NFL defenses counting today. . .I hope the young guys don't take this too hard."
Browns right end Keith McKenzie could tell the Browns were playing a quarterback who hasn't exactly been around the block yet,
"I don't think he was rattled," McKenzie said. "I just think we confused him a lot. A lot of times he held the ball too long and he gave us a chance to get to him. There's no doubt he has talent. He just hasn't played enough yet to see a lot of things."
Today was the kind of day you get with rookies. And you have to count Smith a rookie after playing in his eighth NFL game and making his fifth NFL start. Peter Warrick, their No. 1 pick, made a miraculous leaping one-handed grab down the middle for a 46-yard gain when the game was out of reach. When the game was on the line in the second quarter and the Bengals trailing, 14-7, Warrick dropped a first-down catch inside the Browns' 5-yard line on third down.
"Peter had two or three drops," said Bengals coach Bruce Coslet. "That's very uncharacteristic of him."
Smith fired his first touchdown pass of the season to the other rookie receiver, Ron Dugans, on a four-yard bullet over the middle that tied the game early in the second quarter. But Smith ripped himself for two throws to Dugans during the game's critical drive late in the third quarter and the Browns leading, 17-7. . . .
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After punter Daniel Pope gave the Bengals life by running a fake punt for 22 yards for a first down to the Browns 33, Smith overthrew Dugans at about the 5-yard line. Then two plays after Smith converted a fourth-and-10 on a 21-yard scramble, he was looking at a second-and-10 from the Cleveland 12 when his eyes lit up. Dugans was in bump-and-run coverage with Browns rookie nickel back Lewis Sanders. Dugans ran a fade route into the end zone, but Sanders leaped in front of him for the interception.
"Dugans had (Sanders) on the outside," Smith said. "But I threw it too far inside. That could have changed the whole game. A touchdown and we're right there. Even a field goal changes the game at that point. Instead, it's an interception. Poor throw."
Anderson, the offensive captain, clearly wasn't pleased that his line supplied only 41 yards on 12 carries for Dillon for 3.4 yards per carry, 1.2 below Dillon's career average. He didn't like the seven sacks, although he noted the Browns caused some mismatches with their big linebackers (270-pound Jamir Miller) blitzing against the Bengal running backs.
"But football comes down to one man beating another man's (butt)," Anderson said.
Anderson named no names (Jeff Blake?), but said as he pointed his index finger around the locker room, "We've had quarterbacks here who after that first loss started doing this. ..This is what's going to make Akili great. Being humble and the character. . .I think this game will help him. . .This game will keep poking inside him."
Anderson can see a day this season where Smith throws for something like 350 yards, "but in the back of his mind he'll have this game and it will keep making him do the little things."
While Anderson spoke, Smith was the last man out of the training room. He kept shaking his head.
"Believe me, I never played that bad in my life," Smith said. "You guys will write this and write that, but all I can tell you is to put this one on No. 11. He lost the game."