BY GEOFF HOBSON
Bengals quarterback Akili Smith may be the lowest-rated passer in the NFL, but he's still acting like the franchise quarterback the Bengals pray he becomes.
Worried what his teammates would think if he left a game for the third time this season with an injury last Sunday in Cleveland, Smith gritted his teeth. Then he raised his starting record to 3-9 after Browns defensive end Courtney Brown set fire to Smith's left knee with a hit midway through the first quarter.
The pain burned until he took a shot at halftime.
"You think about stuff like that, man," Smith said of the eyes of his teammates. "What are they going to start thinking? That I'm a coward or something like that? I'm thinking I'm staying in that game no matter what happens after leaving the other two games."
By the way, that 3-9 starting record is right there with the two guys the Bengals might have had in that quarterback class of '99. Cleveland's Tim Couch is 4-17 and Chicago's Cade McNown is 3-11. Of course, he's got to go some to catch Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper at 7-1 and Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb at 7-8.
But one more win ties him with the last Bengals' franchise quarterback. David Klingler had four victories in 24 starts from 1992-94.
Officially, Smith is now the NFL's lowest-rated passer because Ryan Leaf hasn't thrown enough incompletions to qualify. Smith is at 49.9, although he can take solace in the fact the guy ahead of him is Hall-of-Famer Troy Aikman at 57.3
But maybe, just maybe, that ugly 12-3 win over the Browns is the turning point.
"Oh heck, yeah," said Smith when asked if he's still got his confidence after 12 NFL starts.
"It's so close to clicking it's ridiculous. It may click. It may not. I'm not worried about that. It's just growing pains I'm going through. I'm going to succeed in this league."
Yes, he was 7-for-20 passing in Cleveland. Yes, he had 84 yards passing. Yes, he had zero touchdown passes for the fourth straight game.
But he had at least four passes dropped and not a lot of time to throw while racking up an infinite amount of points with his coach and teammates for gutting it out.
For the second straight road trip, Smith earned a visit on the plane ride home from head coach Dick LeBeau. After he benched Smith in Pittsburgh, LeBeau told him he was still his man. This past Sunday over Interstate 71, LeBeau told Smith he was the man.
"He told me that was the type of toughness you have to have," Smith said. "The type of toughness your teammates are looking for."
Defensive captain Takeo Spikes was watching. . .
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He's a tough (guy)," Spikes said. "He's tough, man. Tough and I respect him for that. The main thing is we just want him to keep hanging in there.
"It's hard. It's frustrating," Spikes said. "Whatever he does, it's in the limelight. Whatever he does. Whatever happens, they're going to put it all on his shoulders."
LeBeau indicated he thought Smith played well and was accurate enough when he had time to throw. But last Sunday he faced 11 third-down situations of at least seven yards to go for a first down because of penalties, fumbles or poor running plays.
Smith was 5-for-8 passing in those situations for 73 of his 84 yards, and got sacked twice. The Bengals ran on the other third-and-long.
"We shot ourselves in the foot on some of those early drives with the penalties," Smith said. "The (dropped passes) change the whole complexion, but like I've said, there have been times this season they've been open and I missed them. Actually, I know the numbers and I know I've got to get better, but I felt pretty good out there."
Smith, sacked four times, thinks he held the ball too long on a few occasions. But he also said that a few times, "They were there quick in there because it was third-and-long and they just pinned our ears back."
LeBeau thought Smith threw well against the Browns even though his completion percentage for the season dipped to 42.6 percent.
"The poorest passes that we threw, there was too much penetration in the quarterback's face and he just didn't have a chance to step up and throw," LeBeau said. "The poorest throws were not his fault at all, but he just didn't have room to step and throw and there weren't very many of those."
But LeBeau kept coming back to the hit on Smith's knee and how it may have affected some of his throws.
"As the game progressed, Akili had a pretty sore lower body injury," LeBeau said. "Which I think was a milestone important in the life of a young quarterback who realized that the team expects him to get in there and run the huddle and run the team. He did an excellent job of keeping the tempo of the offense going."
On Sunday, the numbers were bad. But he became the first Bengals quarterback to win back-to-back October games since Boomer I in 1989.
"That's how a quarterback is judged," Smith said. "By winning."
Not to mention enduring.