BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals quarterback spot is no longer exclusive property of Akili Smith, the team's franchise quarterback.
Bengals President Mike Brown declared the spot open Wednesday for next season when he said Smith will be involved in a training camp competition with another quarterback.
Dipping into the draft can't be ruled out, but the leading candidate is 11-year veteran Scott Mitchell. Mitchell is a free agent after this season who shared Wednesday's practice snaps with Smith and says he's healthy enough to play against Arizona this Sunday.
But Mitchell and Smith could very well be working in another offensive system. Brown also made it clear he's not giving up on Smith and says he's re-evaluating everything on the offensive side.
"We are fully aware of how things have failed to come together offensively for us this year," said Brown, who has been distraught over the team's season-long ranking at the bottom of the NFL passing statistics. "We will look at all of this at the end of the year and try to come up with a way to make it work better."
Brown has been puzzled why such quarterbacks as Neil O'Donnell, Jeff Blake, Jay Fiedler and Damon Huard have gone on to success in other systems after struggling in this one.
He indicated part of the end-of-season process involves evaluating if Smith is in the right scheme.
"I think there are a lot of ways we can look at our problem and we will," Brown said, "and we will try to come up with better answers. There are different ways we can do this."
Told of Brown's take on training camp, Smith continued his post-benching policy of not talking to the media.
Brown still has hopes for Smith, but the second-year player's 14 starts since beating Cleveland in his debut last year have sent the club reeling:
_The Bengals' record is 2-12.
_He's thrown three touchdown passes in his last 341 pass attempts.
_He finished off four touchdown drives against Pittsburgh last Sunday. Before that game, he had finished off five touchdown drives in last 13 starts.
_He leads the NFL with 14 fumbles and in six games this season has lost fumbles while getting sacked.
"It's clear there is going to be competition here next year at that spot," Brown said. "We're not going to put all our chips on one guy. We'll have more than one here at that position."
Brown didn't mean to be funny, but he admitted the quarterback spot has been, "our Achilles' heel," since 1992, when the club drafted David Klingler, the franchise quarterback before Smith was taken with the third pick in the 1999 draft.
"It's gone on and on," Brown said. "When Jeff Blake was here, at times it was close, but it never quite got to the point where the quarterback was carrying the team, which is what you want."
If Mitchell can't be re-signed, the list of potential free agents isn't exactly a Pro Bowl ballot. The cream of the crop is Washington's Brad Johnson, Seattle's Jon Kitna, and Denver's Gus Frerotte.
Ray Lucas of the Jets is a restricted free agent and Trent Green of the Rams can be had in a trade.
After that, it gets a bit gamy. There's Jim Harbaugh, Billy Joe Hobert, Danny Kanell, Shane Matthews and Rick Mirer. Trent Dilfer wasn't interested when the Bengals called last offseason before he signed in Baltimore.
"We'll give him the chance," said Brown of Mitchell. "We are doing it with the thought if he can come on and make our team competitive we would want to sign him for next year. We have to look for a way to go to get us back to a competitive level."
Mitchell has said he would like to stay and Brown sounded like he wants him after Mitchell engineered Cincinnati's most productive passing day of the season with 236 yards in a 16-13 loss in New England two weeks ago.
"If he can go out there and suddenly give us 200 passing plus yards, and the way we're running the ball, we're a competitive football team that quickly," Brown said.
But at the moment, Mitchell is more concerned with how the sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee responded to his first practice since he injured it 10 days ago in Foxboro.
Tony Agnone, Mitchell's agent, was surprised to hear the job was so wide open and said his client would be interested. But Agnone also said a big factor is who the head coach will be in 2001.
Mitchell, who would love to play for current Bengals coach Dick LeBeau, remembers how
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sometimes new coaches don't like holdovers. He fell out of favor in Detroit when Bobby Ross took over for Wayne Fontes .
"It's nice to know they like me and they feel comfortable with me," Mitchell said. "I like it here and they've been very nice to me and I'd like to come back. But I'm trying to get through this season."
Mitchell got through his first post-injury practice well Wednesday. He started off shaky by fluttering a few balls and throwing some routes short, but he looked fairly crisp late in the practice once he got warmed up.
Mitchell felt he needed some work on deep timing routes, "but I'm actually pretty pleased." It's the first time he ever wore a knee brace while playing and while that was awkward, he said it was light enough to be no problem on game day.
LeBeau said Mitchell's knee has improved immensely, but he said the he'll have to show good mobility to get the nod and he made no call after Wednesday's practice.
"We'll see how he goes through the week," LeBeau said. "I thought he did a very good job in New England. I thought Akili did a better job last week. I thought a part of that was stepping back and taking a big breath and all the things we talked about."
With Smith 348 passing yards shy of a $1.7 million incentive for next season and his status as the quarterback of the future, LeBeau was asked it the quarterback decision is his call alone.
"It's 100 percent my decision," LeBeau said.
Brown said Smith's incentive, which would also mean $4 million in subsequent years, has nothing to do with LeBeau's call.
"We play the guys we play because we think they give us the best chance to win and that's all there is to it," Brown said. "(Incentives) are often done with a first-round draft pick to fit them under the (salary) cap in year one. In subsequent years, the incentive is designed at the very easiest to obtain.
"If they aren't obtained, they aren't obtained," Brown said. "Can it happen? Yes it can. It wasn't what anyone expected, probably, either the player or the team. . .But we have gotten to a point where we want to look at Mitchell because we played him in one game where he did well and we want to see if he can play at that level. If he can, that's going to be an interesting thing to us."