12-16-01, 12:55 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. _ Akili Smith, the Bengals' erstwhile franchise quarterback, got his first start of the season Sunday when the Bengals opted to sit Jon Kitna with a sprained middle finger on his throwing hand.
Kitna had said he could play if the Bengals decided not to bench him, but head coach Dick LeBeau gave Smith his 16th NFL start here at Giants Stadium against the Jets.
Kitna, who gets at least $1 million if he plays in 80 percent of he team's snaps this season, is the No. 2 quarterback for the game.
The offensive line should be intact for Smith's re-debut, with center Rich Braham (shoulder) and right tackle Willie Anderson (ankle) getting the pre-game nod. But starting left outside linebacker Steve Foley (back) got scratched in favor of homegrown Canute Curtis of Amityville, N.J.
Smith says a lot of water has gone under the bridge since Nov. 13, 2000. That's when he was benched in favor of Scott Mitchell with the Bengals mired at 2-8, triggering a period of erratic off-the-field behavior that took away from his preparation and cost him some locker-room credibility.
Smith has made an effort to win back his teammates and he knows he needs them.
"Once your identity starts to go down, man, it's just hard to get the trust of your teammates back, the organization," Smith said the week before the Bengals came to New York. "The buzz around the locker room is that I don't do the things I used to do. I think it's trickling around to the coaches. Everybody is
starting to notice and that's start of going in the right direction."
Smith agrees with some of his mates that a healthy slice of humble pie has changed his outlook on things.
"After what he went through, it either humbles you or eats you up," said Anderson, the offense's captain. "It either humbles you or you become Ryan Leaf. As far as his personality goes, I think you can see that. He's not thinking about what everybody is saying he has to be. I'm not saying he's a 100 percent changed, but he acts a lot different than last year. I think he knows more about life. He's not hanging with the same guys."
Smith said his arrest on a DUI charge in his hometown of San Diego shortly after last season woke him up. He was acquitted, but he said the incident got him thinking.
"Like Kenny says, you have to live the quarterback's life," said Smith of Bengals quarterbacks coach Ken Anderson. "That made me realize. Everytime, people are looking and saying, 'Akili, you've just been a messup with this and that.' It was hard.
"I think I've been humbled big time," said Smith of his three-year career. "It's been the most humbling experience of my entire life."
Anderson knows his mates have to crank up their play for a young quarterback who is 3-12 as a starter and hasn't thrown for more than 183 yards in his last 10 starts to avoid more of the same.
"We have to help him," Anderson said. "We have to pick up our play around him. The offensive line has to give him more protection than he thinks he has. We have to make the tough catches."