3-20-01 BY GEOFF HOBSON
Akili Smith has been down before. In high school. In college. But he's never been this far down.
"I'm at the depths of Hell right now," Smith mused Tuesday. "I've got to find my way to get out of there."
But one thing about Smith. When he's been down, he's always seemed to bounce back. And that's what he talked about Tuesday here at Paul Brown Stadium during his first group interview since his Nov. 13 benching as the Bengals quarterback and his Feb. 8 DUI in his hometown of San Diego.
He can't talk about the DUI and next week's hearing.
But he did talk about last season's mind-bending frustration and his relief that new offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski's playbook gives him the same option of changing to a pass from a run at the line of scrimmage that he had during his All-American season at the University of Oregon.
"I can go out on the field and just throw strikes all day long," Smith said. "The thing I need to work on is definitely the mental part of the game. I want to get things to slow down so I can see what's happening on the football field and I'll be fine.
"I'm basically competing with myself," said Smith, who shrugs off the club's signing of Jon Kitna and the pursuit of Elvis Grbac. "When they signed Kitna, I wasn't really worried about Kitna, Grbac or whatever they were trying to sign. Basically, if I find peace with myself and figure out what I'm doing and feeling I'm relaxed, I can compete with any quarterback in this league out there."
And there you have the Bengals' quarterback competition for the 2001 season, the third year of Smith's career and the one he has already called, "Make or Break."
It's not Kitna vs. Smith. Or Smith vs. Bengals President Mike Brown. Or Smith vs. the salary cap.
It's Smith's breathtaking physical skills vs. Smith's capacity to harness his adrenaline and emotion on the field.
"We haven't given up on Akili," said Brown Tuesday as he watched Smith throw the first four pass routes the quarterbacks and receivers have learned in the new playbook. "He looks good today. Sharp and on target. We know he has the ability. If you look at Donovan McNabb in Philadelphia and Daunte Culpepper in Minnesota, our guy is not as far behind them as it may look."
Last year's frustration that culminated in the grotesque stat of three touchdown passes in his last 378 attempts and the benching still eats at him. The benching still gnaws
at him because it's five games he could have learned from instead of trying to learn on the sideline.
He admits the shotgun resignation of head coach Bruce Coslet after the third game, the inconsistent play of left tackle Rod Jones, and inexperienced wide receivers didn't help. And, yes, he thinks it's a bit unfair he took much of the heat. But he also knew it was coming as the quarterback.
And he acknowledges he felt extreme pressure from the time Coslet came out on Day One at minicamp and said, "We'll only go as far as Akili takes us."
With those words no longer ringing in his ears, Smith says the idea of an open competition with Kitna should make him more settled and not as keyed up.
Still, he just can't pin down what went wrong last year.
"I sit up and think about it all the time about what exactly happened last year," Smith said. "Because I put all that time and effort into it and I basically didn't get the results I wanted. I kind of came to the conclusion that it's a growing process you have to go through as a young quarterback and hopefully that process is speeded up this year.
"Going through the preseason playing as well as I did, I thought we'd have a phenomenal season. I really thought that I would get better throughout the season. (After) the Cleveland game (a 24-7 loss in the opener), I was baffled. 'What the heck is going on?' And it trickled all the way through the whole season."
The Bengals were ripped for not blowing up the offensive coaching staff after a franchise-low 185-point season. But Smith is energized by the installation of the number tree passing system he had at Oregon. Those who saw him play at Oregon and last year in Cincinnati thought his major flaw was thinking too much, so the passing tree might fell that problem.
"That was one of my biggest problems last year. Thinking too much," Smith said. "That's one of the things I did in college. . .I just come to the line of scrimmage, see the coverage and throw. (The new) offense is similar to what we did at Oregon. If it's two deep (coverage), see the safety, pick a side, just relax and throw the ball."
Last year at the line of scrimmage, Smith could audible into running plays, but not pass plays. Now he'll have the ability to do both if he can read the defense and execute it. But that's not seen as a major difference by the coaching staff because few teams have pass audibles, since they usually end up as short dump passes.
But at the moment, this is all mental. And if Smith sees himself throwing a 17-yard dart into a zone when the defense stacks the line with eight men to stop running back Corey Dillon, why not?
It was the power of positive thinking that dragged him out of his last abyss. In 13 wretched days after his junior season at Oregon in February of 1998, he got pulled over for a suspected DUI and was charged in a bar fight. Reports from those incidents said he was barely below Oregon's limit in the DUI and he was acquitted in the bar fight.
But Smith has admitted those two incidents shook him to the core and Tuesday he said he's doing the same thing by "finding out who my friends are."
Three years ago, the result was the mega season at Oregon, which took him from a junior-college gamble to the third pick n the 1999 NFL Draft.
Smith sees the parallels. He also sees Kitna and the fact he has played in Bratkowski's system.
"I'm my worst enemy," Smith said. "If my game is on, I don't care who the Bengals sign. I'm just trying to get on my game. (Kitna) knows the system. He knows Bratkowski. . .Definitely it gives him a leg up. . .He's got the leg up, but he still has to go out there and move the chains the same way I've got to."
Before last season's final game, Smith said he believed head coach Dick LeBeau when he told him he wasn't benched so he would fail to reach the incentives in his contract.
Now he believes his coach again.
"I told LeBeau I just want a fair shot at the starting position," Smith said. "He said, '(You'll) get a fair shot.'"
He doesn't have to be told. There aren't too many of those left.