1-16-02, 12:45 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Justin Smith may have been shut out in this week's NFL Rookie of the Year balloting. But the man who set the Bengals' rookie sack record with 8.5 was on the mind of at least some of the voters.
The 50-member nationwide panel only had one vote and Steeler inside linebacker Kendrell Bell got 41 of them. Browns cornerback Anthony Henry and his league-high 10 interceptions got six votes and one each went to Bills cornerback Nate Clements, Lions tackle Shaun Rogers, and Rams linebacker Tommy Polley.
"If there was first-place, second-place, third-place, I would have given one of them to Smith," said Rick Gosselin of The Dallas Morning News. "But there was no question the pick was Bell because of what he did on the NFL's No. 1 defense. I wouldn't have voted for Henry because he only started two games and most of his interceptions came in two games."
ESPN's John Clayton said his ballot would have gone Bell-Smith-Rogers.
"Smith had a big impact on a good defense and Rogers had a big year for one of the worst," Clayton said.
Smith, the fourth pick in the draft, acknowledged Tuesday that Bell deserved the award. But he also found it hard to believe he didn't get a vote,
and he made an argument that he could have come in second.
"Kendrell had a great year," Smith said. "But my numbers were good enough that I should have had some kind of consideration, and we were a good defense. I guess it comes down to winning. It's probably the reason we had some guys who should have made the Pro Bowl not make it. A guy like (Corey) Dillon should have gone."
With nine sacks, Bell was the only rookie with more sacks than Smith. Smith also had two interceptions, but maybe his most impressive feat was posting the third most solo tackles on the team with 60. He finished with 67 tackles, while Bell's 82 tackles (69 solo) were second on the Steelers to fellow inside linebacker Earl Holmes. Bell had no interceptions and like Smith, he had no fumble recoveries. The difference? Not only did the Steelers have the No. 1 defense, they had the best defense against the run.
Also helping Bell was "the Steeler mystique." Bell, a second-round pick, became the first Steeler linebacker to start his first NFL game since Hall-of-Famer Jack Lambert in 1974.
"It's the Pittsburgh factor," said Bengals defensive tackle Oliver Gibson, a former Steeler. "You hear the word, 'Pittsburgh,' and that means they play defense. Justin should have been a candidate. He's a good defensive player and if you had asked me 25 weeks ago, I didn't know that. But I relied on him toward the end. I would tell him on some third downs, 'Come on, Justin, you've got to get us off the field.' And he's going to get better. But we have to win games."
Gibson just went through this himself. He was disappointed he didn't make the Pro Bowl after he thought he played at that level. Titans left tackle Brad Hopkins told Gibson in the season finale, "Don't get mad at us. We voted for you."
"It's frustrating when you hear stuff like that," Gibson said. "Maybe that will give guys more incentive to win. You win, the individual honors come."
For his part, Smith did what he has done all year and downplayed it like he has everything else.
"I don't really care," Smith said. "I just want to play and win games."
Then he said with a laugh to a sportswriter, "If the writers voted for it, that explains it."