12-17-01, 12:30 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. _ When Akili Smith heard his left hamstring pop here Sunday, the Bengals quarterback situation got Ki-Janaed.
With the Bengals anxiously watching Smith's first start in more than a year, he took just 26 snaps in the Jets' 15-14 victory before suffering a season-ending hamstring injury. Now the Bengals are no closer to finding out if Smith can be their quarterback than when he got benched on Nov. 13, 2000.
Smith is probably going to miss next May's minicamp as well as most of the voluntary workouts even if he doesn't need surgery to repair two tears in the hamstring. If he does need surgery, trainer Paul Sparling said Smith would "likely" be available for the start of training camp. Smith could be headed to the University of North Carolina this week for an examination by hamstring specialist Bill Garrett. Or, the Bengals could consult with Garrett by sending only Smith's MRI to Chapel Hill.
Smith said Monday he's "praying," not to have a surgery.
Early indications Monday are that the Bengals will try to sign a practice squad quarterback, stick with Jon Kitna and Scott Mitchell, and use wide receiver Peter Warrick as an emergency quarterback. Kevin Thompson and Ricky Ray are scheduled to work out for the squad Tuesday.
Bengals President Mike Brown said Sunday night he thinks Smith will be back next year and not end up on the Texans' expansion list in February. But with Smith suffering a season-ending injury for the second time in his three seasons and Jon Kitna throwing his 16th and 17th interceptions of the season in Sunday's final 4:32, the quarterback quandary has turned into a quarterback quagmire and who knows what will happen by February.
Cold fact: The Bengals didn't complete a pass of 20 yards or more for the third straight week.
"Akili showed brief flashes of good things, but not enough to make a rock solid judgement," Brown said. "We had hoped to get more of a look and now we have to make a decision based on hunch and surmise. We don't have any other alternative. The evidence, such as it is, is in. I think he will (be back) next year. He was anxious to go out there and prove that he could and he did some good things, but he didn't get much of a chance because of the field position."
Kitna said late last week that the sprained middle finger on his throwing hand wouldn't prevent him from playing and that if he didn't play then it was because he was benched. He wasn't happy about the move, but he appreciated the coaches were up front with him.
"I have no problem with that," Kitna said. "They (told Kitna) they felt like they wanted to give Akili a chance to get in there and do what he can do. See where the chips fall and let it go from there."
In a dizzying dozen minutes, Smith played all his chips. He flashed all the reasons (mobility, arm strength, accuracy) why the Bengals gave him the keys to the franchise with the third pick in the 1999 draft. On his first drive, he steered the Bengals 81 yards on 20 plays for a touchdown. He accounted for 50 of the yards in the drive that gave the Bengals a 7-0 lead with 1:56 left in the first quarter.
Smith hit all four of his passes for 35 yards and ran for 15 more. Smith personally converted three third-down plays with his arm and legs.
He rolled out on a third-and four to hit wide receiver Chad Johnson for nine yards to the Jets 40 and got another one when he couldn't find a receiver and scrambled for six yards up the middle on third-and-five to the Jets 16. Then on third-one from the Jets 7, Smith made a quick read over the middle and hit tight end Kirk McMullen for his first NFL catch to the New York 3.
"I thank God for the way I played today," Smith said. "On that first drive, went right down the field, scored, had full control of the game to that point. Hopefully I proved to the organization, my teammates, to you guys that I can still lead this team. This is the last glimpse of Akili Smith for this year, see what happens next year."
Smith also showed flashes of why he has struggled since missing the last eight games of his rookie season with a bad toe. On third-and-nine from his own 16, Smith bolted out of pocket for five yards before getting leveled by safeties Victor Green and Damien Robinson on the play he strained his hamstring. Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham said Smith had wide receiver Chad Johnson open for a first down and appeared to be reading the Jets' front four for running lanes instead of looking down field.
After the first drive, the Jets started blitzing Smith to prevent his scrambles and on the play he got hurt, one of the safeties got in Smith's face and made him tuck it when he could have hit Johnson.
"There were guys running down the field that he never got his eyes to," Lapham said. "But you can't gripe about a 20-play drive. They started blitzing a little more and taking the running lanes away. It would have been good to see how he progressed through that as the game wore on. It will come. He's obviously athletic enough and he's got the arm strength, but he didn't look down there enough. I thought he played well."
Smith, who ran five of the 26 plays for 20 yards, came to a realization watching Kitna on Sundays and film during the week.
"One thing I did notice is there's a lot of running room at quarterback," Smith said. On a few plays, I took off too soon, but I got positive yardage. It's OK when you get positive yardage."
Smith couldn't hide his disappointment as he tries to avoid the first -round injury hex that stalked former Bengals running back Ki-Jana Carter.
"I'm at a loss for words," said Smith, who said it felt like a two-month injury. "It's a real disappointment. It's a freak accident. I'm doing so well and the next thing I hear is my hamstring pop."
His teammates praised him for coming off the scrap heap with such a competitive outing.
"It was sad the way he went out," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "He was in there fighting, doing what the coaches wanted. He knew the game plan cold."
Runnning back Corey Dillon, off a big effort himself with 117 total yards that led the Bengals in rushing and receiving, also took a home a memory.
" The way he came in and took charge and took it down and scored, that says a lot about that man's character," Dillon said. "Even though everybody tried to execute him and persecute him and cut his throat. The guy came out and played excellent football."