9-23-02, 10:15 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Lorenzo Neal saw the media crowd around Akili Smith's locker Monday afternoon and proclaimed, "There he is. The Black Knight. Willie Beamon."
Neal has started calling Smith "The Black Knight," lately and teammates have picked up the nickname from the hero in the movie, "Any Given Sunday," the athletic quarterback who comes out of nowhere to lead his team to glory.
But the man who says he's been "humbled so much," since his first two disastrous years with the team, doesn't want to be a movie star. He just wants the ending.
"If I can write it like the movie script, that would be perfect," Smith said. "The coach in that movie reminds me so much of Coach LeBeau."
It was Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau who put Smith back in the limelight Monday nearly two years after benching him Nov. 13, 2000. His next two starts (Nov. 28, 2000 and Dec. 16, 2001) came only because of injuries to Scott Mitchell and Jon Kitna.
But on Monday, a haggard LeBeau turned to the erstwhile franchise quarterback to spark the NFL's fifth worst offense that is averaging 3.9 yards per play in announcing Smith's 17th NFL start Sunday against Tampa Bay at Paul Brown Stadium.
"I think that he can create some space for himself, and he can scramble around," LeBeau said. "But he'll definitely give us a different look, and I definitely want us to have a different tempo."
The offense has been so poor that Smith's 3-13 record as a starter, along with his career passer rating of 54.2, has been forgotten and his playmaking ability has moved to the forefront of an offense that hasn't made it happen all season. As one veteran said of Smith's promotion, "It's the best situation he could ever hope for. He can do no wrong. There's absolutely no pressure. If he gets just a first down, ,it will be like he got two. If we score a touchdown, it will be like he scored two."
But it certainly isn't a movie script for Kitna and Gus Frerotte. LeBeau said he wanted Frerotte to rest his throwing thumb that he sprained in the opener, but Frerotte was told by Kitna that had gone from Opening Day starter to No. 3 quarterback in 85 passes.
"That's just great," said the upset Frerotte as he gave the injured thumb a "thumbs-up," while stalking out of the locker room.
Miffed at finding out the news in
such fashion, Frerotte said, "What are you going to do? Let him go play. When you win, you get the goods. When you lose, you get the bads. That's how it goes."
Kitna relieved Frerotte in Atlanta after Frerotte missed his first seven throws, but like Frerotte, he also threw an interception and got sacked. He finished 18 of 35 for 136 yards, fired a couple of passes behind his receivers, and wasn't surprised he got passed over.
"For whatever reason, I don't have any favor in the coaches' eyes or in somebody else's eyes," Kitna said. "It's not hard to see. In fact, I told Akili that I thought he would be next. I hope he's the spark. I hope we win the next three or four games."
It wasn't Bengals President Mike Brown who made the call, although earlier in the day he noted that the passer ratings of Kitna (49.2) and Frerotte (46.1) are better only than David Carr and Chad Pennington in the AFC.
Management has insisted they instructed the coaches to play the players they thought are best and that appears to be the case here. If Smith ends up passing for 1,600 yards this season, he figures to pick up about $6 million or so over the next two years. But the Bengals can probably deal with that under the salary cap because only one of the quarterbacks figures to hit their incentives and they could always re-do Smith's deal.
"It's based on the numbers, the facts I just talked about. We're averaging 3.7 yards per throw, and under 10 yards per catch," LeBeau said. "We don't have any big plays. We want to look at this combination and see what we can get going. We want to get up and get in the game."
Smith didn't think he'd get in the game until, "the 10th or 11th week, if that," but he's thankful for another opportunity that he knew would come even though he has frequently questioned the franchise's commitment to him since they made him the third pick in the 1999 draft.
He doesn't think he's rusty even though he hasn't taken a snap with the No. 1 offense since his brief but spectacular start against the Jets last Dec. 16. He completed all four of his passes on the game's opening 20-play touchdown drive and scrambled five times for 20 yards before severely tearing his hamstring on the third drive of the game while bolting out of the pocket.
When he showed up at training camp off surgery and started playing well in preseason games, his standing with the fans undertook a stunning transformation. As he directed the Bengals to eight scoring drives in four games, he went from spoiled and unprepared first-round draft pick to swashbuckling underdog battling for his NFL life. He hit 41 of 78 passes for 355 yards, two touchdowns, and three interceptions in the preseason while rushing for 124 yards on 20 carries and when the fans were asked on Monday's bengals.com fan poll to choose between Smith and Kitna, Smith hit 80 percent with more than 9,000 votes in 12 hours.
After the Jets' game, the coaches still weren't happy with Smith because they felt he ran too early in the play and didn't look long enough for his receivers. They felt the injury confirmed what can happen to a QB who runs so much. But he seemed to stay in the pocket more during the preseason, yet showed the Meadowlands hit hasn't made him run shy.
"I'm going to do what I did in the preseason, I'm not going to change a thing," Smith said. "I'll take what I can get. If I can get the ball to a guy, I'll get it to him. If the pocket collapses, I'm getting out of there and making something happen."
At least publicly, Smith's teammates greeted the news with the belief he might be able to make something happen.
"He knows the offense," said wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh. "Gus and Jon know it, too, but defenses know the quarterback is not running, so the linebackers can't get all that deep on their drops. And if they do run, he can run for five. That's a good running play. I think he'll be a spark. I hope he is. We need a spark because we haven't done anything."
Smith feels he has a much better shot with this team than the one he led for 11 games in 2000 and could produce only three touchdown passes out of 267 passes. He played with a shaky left tackle that got him blindsided several times, a receiving corps that had a total of 15 NFL games on Opening Day, and an offense that didn't suit him.
Since beating the Browns with a last-second touchdown pass in his first NFL start, he has thrown just three TD passes in his last 349 passes.
"I've been humbled so much since then," Smith said. "I just wasn't ready to deal with all of that mentally. I didn't think it would be that tough. It was extremely tough. I was the one that took the heat."
Smith says he's a better student and more mature. After Monday's workout, he held a book called "Proverbs," and says he's been reading a lot more inspirational material since, "I've had a lot of time on my hands, so I read."
He's also reading an offensive system that is closer to the one that allowed him to throw 45 touchdown passes in 19 games at Oregon.
Bruce Coslet's system is based on the 1-2-3-4 progression reads in which Smith struggled his first two seasons while holding the ball longer than a Hall of Fame statue. Bob Bratkowski's playbook is based on coverages and finding the safeties. Smith has been comfortable with that, as well as the same number tree for routes that he used with the Ducks.
"I'm just looking to get us on the board early," said Smith of an offense that has been outscored, 57-3, in the first half. "Keep the chains moving, keep the defense off the field."
Smith thinks he can help a struggling offensive line, which has allowed 11 sacks this season. Even though left tackle Richmond Webb's man has accounted for four sacks the past two weeks (even though that doesn't mean he was personally accountable for all four), Smith has confidence in his 13 NFL seasons.
"If I feel some pressure, I'm out of there and maybe that will take pressure off (the line)," Smith said. "Then the defensive linemen have to slow down as far as their rush is concerned."
Smith sees his charge as simple Sunday after LeBeau told the team he had tapped him because he felt he could provide a spark off the bench.
"We haven't been making plays," Smith said. "I'm looking to be that spark to get us going."
The movies can be funny. Two years ago, he was closer to Joe Willie Namath as a hot shot draft pick with great college numbers everybody knew. Two years later, he's closer to Willie Beamon coming out of nowhere, looking to make plays and a name.
"I hope it works out like the movie," said the real live Willie Beamon.