12-18-01, 4:20 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
He wanted to show the world "what Akili Smith can do."
But before Smith ended his season when he tore his left hamstring bolting out of the pocket Sunday in the second quarter against the Jets, the Bengals showed what they can do to help make Smith the world-class quarterback they think he can become.
In 26 snaps, Smith showed more ease and grasp with new offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski's scheme than he did in the entire previous two years he toiled in former head coach Bruce Coslet's system. The change was so stark in the 20-play touchdown drive that opened the game that Bengals president Mike Brown and right tackle Willie Anderson both thought they were watching Pro Bowler Donovan McNabb.
"The offense was put in for him, not (put in) from back in 1988," Anderson said. "They put in plays that were designed for him. Look at Donovan McNabb, Rich Gannon. Those guys are pocket passers, but at at the same time if it's not there, they take off running. That's a luxury to have. Those quick reads in the pocket, they throw it away. But a guy like Akili and those guys can get eight, nine yards (by running). They can get a first down."
Smith ached with disappointment Monday as he stood gingerly on his left leg in front of his locker. He talked about "laying it all on the line in these last four games," and wanting to show what a difference his mobility could make at quarterback. He was still at "a loss for words."
Trainer Paul Sparling said that cherished mobility should not be affected if there are no complications with the hamstring tear.
The shame of it all is that Bratkowski had just 26 snaps to show what a difference he could make in Smith's career.
Smith admitted when he left the film room Monday he thought about injury-riddled running back Ki-Jana Carter, symbol of the Bengals' inability to find lightning on offense down through the years.
"I hope I'm not jinxed with that. I really hope not," said Smith after suffering his second season-ending injury in three years. "If there's something I'm doing wrong for me not to get going yet as a Bengal, I sure would like it to be revealed. I've changed a lot of things I've done. . .It's just frustrating."
Smith said against the Jets they didn't even scratch the surface of the package that had been put together for his first start in the scheme Bratkowski brought in the offseason from his days with Dennis Erickson. The move marked the Bengals' departure from the concepts passed from Paul Brown and Bill Walsh in the early days of the franchise to Coslet.
"I've been telling everybody since week one, this is what I ran in college," Smith said. "Brat did a lot of out-of-pocket stuff, quarterback runs (near) the goal line. He did all those things necessary for an athletic quarterback like myself to be successful."
Smith never got a chance to run the quarterback draws and option rollouts he ran at Oregon and into an All-American berth and the third pick in the 1999 draft that Bratkowski stockpiled for him later in the game and season. But he did look more decisive reacting to his first and second reads rather
than the series of West Coast progressions.
"As the game went on, the Jets would have adjusted and then Akili and Bob would have adjusted back and that would have been interesting to see," Brown said. "I don't think he would have been able to run as much as he did, but that's not a bad way to start out. Now the defense has to be thinking, 'I've got to be careful in my drops.'"
Smith thinks a reason Bratkowski is so quick to give him the out-of-pocket stuff is because he worked the last two seasons as the receivers coach in Pittsburgh with Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart. But this is the offense that Bratkowski ran in Seattle before he went with the Steelers. What may have been even more important to Smith than the Xs and Os was how the Xs and Os were presented.
"Brat did a good job of cutting down the game plan to a core of plays," Smith said. "He cut it down, but he also added some plays for me. So I was able to focus on a smaller number of things. Usually we've got more in (the game plan) to cover ourselves in case it doesn't work."
Smith ran five times of the 26 plays and while quarterbacks coach Ken Anderson advised him he left the pocket too early on some plays, Smith said, "That's Kenny's opinion. My opinion is I was getting the ball up the field."
Bratkowki had an idea how Smith would be on the first series, so he loosened up things out of the box.
"I think he would even admit that he probably ran a little bit more than he should have and I figured that's the way it was going to be," Bratkowski said. "That's why we kind of structured the things we did early. We figured he'd be a little anxious in there. He wouldn't see things well, so we gave him some things to give him an opportunity to be successful.
"The bottom line is he scored points," Bratkowski said. "That's the only way to judge a quarterback and he scored and that's the most impressive thing. He had the ball 20 plays, didn't make a mistake, and got us into the end zone."
Smith saw how he tore his hamstring on tape Monday and he's still not sure how he did it because the play looked and felt unremarkable.
"It didn't look like anything happened," Smith said. "I don't know. I heard it pop as I was going down. As I was about to get hit. Before the contact."
But while Smith may have had an open receiver in Chad Johnson on the play, Smith felt he didn't have time to find out on the Jets' third-and-9 safety blitz.
"The pocket collapsed so quick," Smith said. "I dropped back and as I was (scanning) the field, I was already stepping up. The pocket collapsed so fast, I had to get out.
"They know that if they blitz, they' re vulnerable," Smith said. "If I break out, there's only four people left in the secondary and I get two or three blocks it could be all the way to the house."
His most decisive moment came on The Drive's 18th play on a third-and-one from the Jets 7, when he hit tight end Kirk McMullen on a four-yard-right-now bolt.
Smith said it was sneak play where the tight end stays in like he's blocking and then suddenly makes himself available wide. What pleased the Bengals is that McMullen was his second read. Smith found nothing on his first read, fullback Lorenzo Neal.
"I thought he was very decisive," said head coach Dick LeBeau. "When we got in the red zone, where there's not much room, he hit Kirk McMullen. There was no delay, no hesitation. The guys did a good job getting open for him and that ball was out of there. That's the type of execution that you need to have in the red zone because people are going to react quickly down there. That was one play that I thought reflected good, positive growth on his part. It was quickly delivered, accurately delivered. I thought he did a good job scrambling. I thought he was leaving the pocket a little too much, but I could see what he was thinking and he was having success with it. Then unfortunately he got in an awkward position and got injured."
The only Xs and Os for Smith Monday looked to be those of a six-month rehab period. All that will be dictated by whether or not he has surgery. But he knows one thing.
"Now I'm about to train like hell this offseason," he said. "It's going to be a different offseason to get this hamstring back."