Smith shows enough for '02

12-17-01, 7:35 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Akili Smith, his season done, admitted Monday he doesn't know what Bengals President Mike Brown is thinking upstairs at Paul Brown Stadium.

But he is hoping that, "Mike is saying, 'Give this kid another chance," because Smith doesn't want to learn a new offense, new teammates or, "have to go out and get (new) furniture."

Then Smith will be happy to know he can pick up another showroom item. Brown said Monday there hasn't been a final decision, but it's "unlikely," the Bengals will leave him exposed to the Houston Texans' expansion list in February.

As he did repeatedly last month, Brown said again Monday that Smith figures to be back with the Bengals next season and despite Smith's significant hamstring tear, Brown plans to stay the off-season course in finding a third quarterback to join Smith and Jon Kitna in the middle of the draft or in the middle of the free-agency board.

In fact, Brown, the man who has insisted the only place to find a franchise quarterback is at the top of the draft's first round, said Monday the NFL stat sheet proves that they can come from anywhere at anytime and that the Bengals will set their sights lower.

"I don't see us going that route again. We've done that now three times in this franchise and had it blow up on us," Brown said of Smith, David Klingler and Jack Thompson.

But Brown thinks Smith has a shot after going through three brutal seasons.

"I am not discouraged about Akili's future. This does make me see his future as more encouraging," Brown said, "He did enough even in only three drives to make you say, 'Well, gee, we can figure it out with him.' I'm not going to write him off. I would tell you most injuries seem to be resolved favorably for players."

Smith may need surgery to repair two tendons that have been torn off the bone attached to the buttock when he scrambled out of the pocket midway through the second quarter of Sunday's 15-14 loss to the Jets.

Trainer Paul Sparling said it's not as significant as the injury Bengals cornerback Rodney Heath suffered earlier in the season when he needed surgery after tearing all three tendons in that area.

But Sparling said it's a severe injury and even if Smith doesn't need surgery, he'll miss the May minicamp, most of the voluntary camps, and

"likely," be ready for training camp.

"If there are no complications, it shouldn't affect his mobility," Sparling said. "Because of what he has to do at quarterback, the injury isn't as serious if he played wide receiver or cornerback."

It was Smith's mobility Sunday that had the Bengals remembering why they chose him with the third pick in the 1999 NFL Draft. He scrambled for 20 yards and threw for 35 more in 26 plays and led the Bengals on their longest touchdown drive in history that took 20 plays and a dozen minutes during his first start in more than a year.

While he watched Smith pass and run, Brown thought of the player drafted just before Smith in Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb.

"I'm thinking that this is pretty much how the guy in Philadelphia does it," Brown said. "Maybe we're on to something good here. No sooner than that thought crops up and it's all dashed. We've had some very unfortunate things happen to our first-round picks."

Which is one of the reasons Brown has convinced himself that the quarterback answer no longer lives in the first round after looking at stats in which the Raiders' Rich Gannon and the Rams' Kurt Warner are leading their conferences in passing.

"Warner was a guy that came out of nowhere and put on the expansion list. That's how much he was thought of," Brown said. "Gannon is a multi, multi retread. Vinny (Testaverde) has been everywhere and (Brett) Favre was traded when Atlanta didn't think he would work out.

"The guys in the lower half of the rankings are unrestricted free agents," Brown said. "It's pretty obvious nobody knows how to figure this out and I guess we plead guilty because we've had trouble figuring it out. But I don't know if you solve it just by taking a guy No. 1."

One problem is the Bengals have an unrestricted free agent who is at the bottom of the NFL with a 61.5 passer rating after throwing two touchdowns and 10 interceptions in the Bengals' six-game losing streak. But Brown is also standing by Jon Kitna.

"I think that Jon can do better than he has done lately," Brown said. "He's trying to do too much. He's trying to do more than he should try to do."

Kitna, who threw two interceptions in the final 4:32 Sunday when the Bengals just needed a field goal to take the lead, agreed.

After watching the tape Monday, he blamed himself for the high throw behind Peter Warrick. When he overthrew Darnay Scott in the last minute, he said he was just trying to go long with so little time and no timeouts left.

"On that first one, I shouldn't have tried to (fit it into a hole)," said Kitna of a first-and-10 throw from the Jets 48. "We had a first down on their side of the 50 and we needed a field goal. We're just not there yet where we're all on the same page and I can't expect it to click in a game like that."

Head coach Dick LeBeau continued to insist Monday that the sprained middle finger on Kitna's throwing hand was a factor in the interceptions and raised the possibility that Scott Mitchell could start if the finger isn't better.

But Kitna also continued to insist his finger is fine, so he was asked if he thought LeBeau was trying to deflect heat for him.

"I don't need anybody to take the heat off me," Kitna said. I'm a grown boy."

The Bengals are still trying to decide if they will sign a veteran quarterback to give them three for the remaining three games, or go with a practice squad quarterback in sticking with Kitna, Mitchell and making Warrick the No. 3 quarterback. LeBeau joked Monday that if you looked up the All-Ohio team of 1955, a certain future NFL cornerback from London quarterbacked the squad. But LeBeau gave the job to Warrick.

The problem is, there is so little time to learn the offense, a new quarterback is only going to hand off pretty much anyway. But couldn't it get ugly if Warrick had to play for something like three quarters?

"It would be an interesting ugly," Brown said. "Peter is an exciting player."

Warrick, who lined up once under center last year as a rookie and scored on a four-yard keeper against the Ravens, said he can throw it, too.

"Tony Rice," Warrick said of the former Notre Dame playmaker. "I'll run it, too, you can believe that one. I'm going to turn it down and hit it. I could play a whole game at quarterback."

The last time he did was at Bradenton Southeast High School, the school he led to Florida's Class 5A state championship as a senior with 13 touchdown passes and 13 rushing touchdowns.

Practice squad candidates Ricky Ray and Kevin Thompson are scheduled to work out Tuesday. Thompson, 24, out of Penn State, completed his only NFL pass last year in Cleveland, where he got cut this past summer.

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