Smith promoted to backup

11-27-01, 5:40 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Akili Smith has been promoted to backup quarterback. Jon Kitna figures if the Bengals keep losing, Smith will take the next step and take his job as the starter.

"I'm sure he'll be playing pretty soon if we lose a few more games and we get mathematically eliminated (from the playoffs)," Kitna said Tuesday. "They've got decisions they need to make with him. I'm sure that will be in their thinking."

Smith also knows what it means if the 4-6 Bengals keep losing.

"I would think the No. 1 job is up in the air again next year if things keep going the way they're going," Smith said. "The next six games are pivotal for Kitna, the organization, everybody."

But just like Smith didn't like mopping up in Cleveland last Sunday, Kitna doesn't like the possibility of getting lifted in a lost season.

"In my opinion, that's a mistake," Kitna said. "As I've been saying, regardless of how this season ends, if we keep everybody together, you look at the teams that keep together and those are the teams consistently playing well year in and year out. You keep everybody together, we've got a chance. But if you're looking for the quick fix, well, hope we find it."

The Bengals moved closer to a qick fix when Smith moved ahead of Scott Mitchell on the depth chart Wednesday. Mitchell, a free agent to-be demoted to No. 3, may have taken his last snap for a team he led to a 2-2 finish last year. Mitchell, 33, took Wednesday's news as hard as he took the decision to start Kitna at the start of the regular season.

"I'm extremely surprised. I'm disappointed," said Mitchell, who had three of his 12 passes intercepted in Sunday's second half in relief of Kitna.

"It really hasn't been explained to me," Mitchell said. "I'm disappointed at the game on Sunday. I expected to play better. I tried to force too many things. It doesn't mean I'm a bad player or that I can't help this team out. That's the frustrating part. I felt like I can help this team out. I wasn't given an opportunity to do it."

Bengals coach Dick LeBeau said the move was done to get Smith snaps in practice.

"If we get in a situation where I think making a change would help us, then it will be Akili that gets a shot," LeBeau said. "I want him to get as many snaps as he can get, so he'll be working with the No. 2 unit."

Kitna believes he is the guy who can fix it and that he has the confidence of his mates to shake a three-game losing streak in which the team is riding a streak of seven straight scoreless quarters.

Only two quarterbacks in the league (Trent Green of the Chiefs and Chris Weinke of the Panthers) have a lower passer rating than Kitna's 65.8. He's got 12 interceptions, but his backers point to his nine touchdowns and 1,928 passing yards in 10 games compared to the six touchdowns and 2,219 yards Smith and Mitchell had all last year.

" Who ever your guy is, hang with them," Kitna said. "I think guys understand me, guys respect me in this locker room. Guys know what I bring to the table and who ever it is, stick with it. Stick through it in thick or thin. Ride the bad times like you ride the good. That's my opinion, but I'm not a coach, general manager or owner."

None of those with the Bengals had a response for Smith's frustration stemming from head coach Dick LeBeau's decision to put him into Sunday's game with 1:13 left in the 18-0 loss. Smith told Mark Curnutte of "The Cincinnati Enquirer," in Tuesday's editions that he felt disrespected

when the club asked him to play in that situation. On Wednesday, LeBeau said he wouldn't react to what he called an "emotional" response.

On Tuesday, Smith said he welcomed the possible promotion to backup from No. 3. But the only word he got from the staff is that he should have first aired his complaint with LeBeau. LeBeau said he'll inform the quarterbacks of his decision before practice Wednesday.

"That means I'll get some reps in practice and that's what I've been crying about all along," said Smith, who said last week he doesn't understand why the Bengals aren't developing him.

Except for the bye week, Smith hasn't taken a snap with the first-team offense since he came down with shoulder tendinitis Aug. 10. And he usually doesn't go against the first defense in practice. As the backup, Mitchell got a handful of plays during team.

"The backup should get a lot of snaps with the No. 1 defense," Smith said. "You still see some real sound coverages that other teams use. The intensity is a lot higher. I'm not going to work with the ones, I know that. But at least I can get those reps, plus those in seven on seven against the number one defense. I'm not even doing that."

He said he has no plans to talk to LeBeau or management because, "I feel that's on the organization." But he also said he still thinks he can be the Bengals' franchise quarterback that they took with the third pick in the 1999 NFL Draft.

"I'll take advantage of it," Smith said of the possible promotion Tuesday. "I'll do my best. Study. Get some of these guys to stay after practice, take some extra reps. Try to catch up. I'm a young quarterback catching up."

It's been a year and two weeks since Smith lost his job to Mitchell. It's been 11 games since Kitna won the training-camp derby with all three. Smith and Kitna don't see themselves as backups. But Kitna thinks he might be if the slump continues.

"That's the way things usually go," Kitna said. "But not if we come out and win our next two games."

Kitna met with offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski and quarterbacks coach Ken Anderson Tuesday for the first time since Sunday's benching and the coaches assured him LeBeau made the move simply to find a spark and that he's got the endorsement for Sunday's start against Tampa Bay.

"As much as you can," Kitna said. "When you're losing, quarterback is the first place to look to see what's going on and to try to make a change. In my opinion, the team that sticks together, the team that sticks with it, are teams that will win. Teams that keep looking for a quick fix, sooner or later you might find one, I guess."

As Smith watched Tampa Bay tape Tuesday, the only thing that seemed quick was Warren Sapp's defense.

"I'm confused," Smith said. "If I'm here, develop me."

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