4-2-02, 6:40 P.M.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
After meeting with club president Mike Brown for about 20 minutes in his Paul Brown Stadium office Tuesday, Akili Smith now understands why the Bengals have been pursuing any quarterback not bronzed.
Both emerged from the spur-of-the-moment summit feeling better about the other. Smith gave assurances about his health and Brown reassured him the organization hasn't given up on its erstwhile franchise quarterback.
But because of the uncertainty of Smith's hamstring injury, the question isn't if the Bengals are going to get another quarterback, but the question is when.
In the next 18 days before the NFL Draft? In the draft? After the draft? And at least one guy in the organization isn't giving up on a trade for the Patriots' Drew Bledsoe.
"Until he's in another uniform, that tells me that it's still a possibility," said head coach Dick LeBeau. "We're delighted that Akili is coming along the way he has, but it's still a question mark. So another guy would fit us. "
The other guy could be Bledsoe, but it more realistically will come out of this month's NFL Draft or a small pool of free agents. But if the Bengals are banking on drafting a quarterback,
what if that falls through and former Falcons starter Chris Chandler and current Denver backup Gus Frerotte are no longer on the market?
Former Bengals quarterback Jeff Blake is also out there, but it doesn't look like it is a fit since they drafted Smith to replace Blake in 1999.
The Bengals made contact with Frerotte's agent Tuesday to gauge his interest at what will probably start out biding his time behind Jon Kitna, which he has done with the Broncos the last two seasons backing up Brian Griese. Denver is reportedly still interested in re-upping Frerotte a third time. After spurning the Bengals' multi-year offer in the $10-12 million range 13 months ago, Frerotte settled on another one-year deal in Denver.
"I was back in San Diego thinking the Bengals had given up on me," Smith said. "Now I see it totally different after talking to Mike. I can understand why they're trying to get a quarterback. The reports he had on me were that I might not be back until the beginning of the season, or even the middle of the season."
Smith told Brown he is already jogging three months after surgery repaired a hamstring that was 90 percent ripped off the bone in two places. He says that puts him a month ahead of schedule and that he is shooting to be full speed and throwing to his receivers by June 24, 32 days before the start of training camp.
"We're very pleased with his rehab, but it's not dead certain until we see him go out and do it and that might not be until July," Brown said. "Meanwhile, if we haven't done something else, we may not be in a position to do it then. Ideally, we'd like to wait on Akili and maybe we don't have to do anything. But we can't do that because we just can't be sure.
"We might have to get somebody before the draft, or in the draft, or in June or July," Brown said. "The problem is, (the free agents) don't write us and tell us if they're going to be available then."
Frerotte, who turns 31 in training camp, made one start last season and was 16 of 22 for 161 yards in a 26-23 loss to Kansas City. His overall numbers behind Griese were solid at 30 of 48 passing for 308 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions for a passing rating of more than 100.
Like Smith, he's a bit of a question mark because he's coming off some shoulder problems. Plus, Frerotte and his family like Denver and the Bengals would probably want him to come in and throw before they do anything. But he's also got some upside, such as a career yards per attempt of 7 in eight down-the-field seasons and a Pro Bowl selection (1996) under his belt.
It's believed the Bengals offered Frerotte attractive money last year in the first season of a four-year proposal, but that he balked at the final number that maxed out for play time and incentives
Meanwhile, Smith is here partly because he has enormous talent, partly because he was taken with the third pick, and partly because if the Bengals cut him or trade him, the salary cap for 2002 balloons by $5.5 million.
"I'll be able to drop back and pass at minicamp," said Smith of the mandatory May 3-6 weekend that opens the month's 18 on-field workouts. "But it's going to dropping back slowly. I'm shooting to be ready to be able to drop back full speed by June 24. That's when I want to work with the receivers on timing and routes. I know that's a dead time around here, but I'm going to need it."
Smith also plans more extensive study with offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. After meeting with him Tuesday, Smith is looking forward to a regimen in which he takes notes by himself watching film and then goes over them with Bratkowski for reinforcement.
But Tuesday's meeting with Brown is the one that had Smith shaking his head with pleasant surprise.
"I was totally blown away," Smith said. "He was more understanding than what people think. He said, 'Great to see you back here,' and we just talked about the off-season program.
"I told him I'm not too much worried about all the talk about Drew Bledsoe, the Trent Dilfer talk," Smith said. "I will be ready to play 100 percent and I will be looking forward to those four pre-season games to show the organization what I can do and he said, 'Definitely.We definitely have you in mind. We'll see what happens."'