Smith fingered for start?

12-11-01, 12:45 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

If Jon Kitna's middle finger isn't ready, Akili Smith's trigger finger is.

Smith, the former franchise quarterback who hasn't started in the regular season since Nov. 26 last season, admitted he walked out of Monday's film session of Sunday's 14-10 loss to Jacksonville thinking the offense looked about the same in that 48-28 loss to Pittsburgh a year ago.

Asked Monday how he could make it any different, Smith said, "The one thing I can do differently than Kitna and (Scott) Mitchell is I can get a little more out of my legs. I can get it out of there and tuck the ball. Running is an option.

"Everybody would like a chance and I'd like to help us stop this five-game slide," Smith said. "But the coaches haven't told me a thing. I'm in the dark as much as everybody else."

That's because Kitna left Paul Brown Stadium Monday with the middle finger of his throwing hand in a splint listed as probable after catching it inside a facemask on a third-down pass late in the third quarter Sunday.

But Kitna did say, "If you asked me if I was going to be able to play this week, I'd say, 'No.' I've had jammed fingers before, but not like this where I can't squeeze the right hand."

Kitna's finger has given the Bengals a hand in their quarterback quandary. There is debate in the organization if now is the time to go

with Smith because the Bengals can't make the playoffs.

Bengals President Mike Brown said last month he would like to see Smith get some experience, but Monday night he said there had been no decision if now is the time with four games left. Asked if his coaches would fight such a move in their bid to win now, Brown said, "That's how the coaches should feel. They should want to win every game. At this stage, we would like to (win and develop). It's under discussion, but I think we have to wait to see how Jon's finger is in a day or two."

Then there is the sticky matter of Kitna's incentive that kicks in if he takes 80 percent of the snaps.

Asked if Kitna is his quarterback if healthy, head coach Dick LeBeau said Monday, "In all probability, yes."

Smith reiterated what he said last week in understanding why Kitna doesn't want to get pulled if he's not hurt.

"I really wish I had those last few games last year to get some more snaps," Smith said. "I was in his shoes and I know how he feels."

Smith really felt in Kitna's shoes when he watched the tape of Sunday's loss.

"Everytime we go into the film room, it's the same thing that's been happening around here for three years," Smith said. "Either Kitna doesn't get it there if they're open, or somebody slips if he does get it there, or there's a breakdown somewhere else. It's right on the button as far as what was going on last year. The only difference is we started hot. If I play, maybe my ability to change the pace little bit (would help)."

Smith wonders if it would help streamlining the playbook.

"I'm not the coach, so I'm not the guy making the plays," Smith said. "I'm just saying with the mental breakdowns we've been having, maybe the best thing to do is to make it simple. Go back to what we were doing in training camp. Run some of that Georgetown stuff."

Smith said he thinks his teammates would rally to him if he gets the nod.

"I would hope so," Smith said. "The talk I hear around the locker room is that the guys would be ready. They're in my corner. Everybody would like to finish 8-8. That's the goal now. It's like coach LeBeau said today. If we take a look at all the games we lost, we can look back at each one and see two or three plays and how we could have won them."

Kitna, who hasn't missed a start because of injury in his three seasons as a starter, said he's willing to not practice all week and play Sunday.

But offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said it's not written in stone he would allow Kitna to start without practicing. He said it would depend how the week goes, but the bottom line is the Bengals don't want to many any kind of a definitive call until at least the team gets back to practice Wednesday.

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