Smith's response is key

Now, Akili Smith's NFL career begins.

The same can't be said of the scheme the Bengals have asked him to work. Any offense that has just one pass of 20-plus yards to a wide receiver since the second game of the season is going to come under scrutiny no matter the quarterback.

Whether the offensive system is going to be an off-season casualty is an open question. But whether he's starting or not, Smith is here next year for sure because he's going nowhere with his $10.8 million signing bonus counting against the salary cap.

So we'll find out about him. More than his five fumbles, six interceptions, and 27 straight quarters without a touchdown pass could ever hope to tell us.

Smith, the Bengals' franchise quarterback, won't start Sunday against the Patriots for the first time in his coming-out season. But he's been here before.

Such as before the fourth game of his junior season at Lincoln High School. Such as early in his first year at Grossmont Junior College. Such as the middle of the season his junior year at Oregon.

Those were all moments in his life he rode the bench. A. Smith could just as well stand for "Adversity."

Bengals wide receiver Damon Griffin, who played with Smith at Oregon, said it best:

"If he's the competitor he says he is, then it will help him because he'll come back even stronger."

Ray Smith, Akili's father, knows it better than anyone. It was Ray who helped coach Akili in youth ball and the preps, never allowing him to forget his dream of becoming a quarterback despite all the coaches who wanted to turn him into a tight end, a linebacker, a safety.

"He's still the franchise quarterback, but this is just another hurdle he has to get over," said Ray Smith Tuesday night from San Diego after speaking with his son about the benching.

"He's respectful of the coaches and their decisions and he just has to make sure he's going to continue to work hard. He will. He's realistically still a rookie and I think if the city is patient, we'll have something special in a year or two."

The first thing Bengals coach Dick LeBeau told his son, Ray Smith said, is "Son, you're just trying so hard." Ray says his son is still upbeat, still with the program, and Ray tends to agree with LeBeau.

Ray Smith watched Akili press in three straight games his junior year at Oregon and then get lifted before getting the call again to lead the Ducks to a win over Washington.

"Now this gives you a chance to re-look at the thing," Ray Smith said. "He'll have his clipboard and he'll be watching Scott (Mitchell), who's a veteran, and that will help him see the big picture."

The Bengals' current offense may not fit into the big picture. The club has always hung its hat on the notion it's the same system that averaged 26 points per game in the non-strike seasons from 1986-90.

But since 1998, with three quarterbacks who started 10 games or more (Smith, Jeff Blake, Neil O'Donnell), the Bengals have averaged 15 points per game.

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And Blake, who completed 55 percent of his passes for 16 touchdowns and 2,670 yards last season in 12 starts here last season, has 13 touchdown passes and 1,986 yards on 61 percent passing in 10 starts for the Saints.

O'Donnell has thrived as a backup in the Titans' system. Mean while, the quarterback taken just ahead of Smith in the '99 Draft Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb has 14 touchdown passes this season compared to two for Smith.

McNabb is the quarterback most resembling Smith in that class of '99 as a tall, athletic guy with a great arm. McNabb's numbers aren't great with a 55 completion percentage and a 72.7 passing rating. But with 2,184 yards, he's nearly doubled Smith.

No doubt things would be different if Bengals receiver Darnay Scott hadn't suffered a season-ending broken leg Aug. 1, leaving Smith with five receivers who had a total of 15 NFL catches on Opening Day.

None of the Class of '99 had to deal with that. And most of them won't deal with what Smith could find himself doing next year and that's learning a new offense in just his third season.

Chicago's Cade McNown might find himself in that boat, but that's for the hot-stove pundits to ponder the last weeks of the year as they prepare to buzz into the offseason.

But we should get a better feel for Smith before the season is over. How he responds to the benching could ultimately turn out to be more important than his final stats.

"Sometimes," said Ray Smith, "God wants you to take a step backward before taking those steps forward and I think that's how he's going to look at it."

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