8-5-01, 9:25 a.m.
Updated: 8-5-01, 7:30 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
CHICAGO _ Akili Smith would like just one play back from Saturday's pre-season opener.
But other than that, he pronounced his infamous shattered confidence regained after wriggling his way back into the Bengals quarterback derby despite the bizarre 16-13 overtime loss here to the Bears at Soldier Field.
In fact, after Smith flashed all the decisiveness and poise lacking last year, he said he had already heard rumblings around the team that he would start Friday in Detroit. Head coach Dick LeBeau said he talked to Smith before Saturday night's game about starting in Detroit, but won't make a call until Tuesday's news conference.
"I had kind of thought in my mind that if he went third in this game, he might go first the next time, but let's wait until Tuesday on that," LeBeau said Sunday after watching film of the game back at Georgetown College, the club's training camp.
"I liked the decision making of Akili as opposed to what I saw last year," LeBeau said. "He took a look, if he didn't like it, he took off. It showed up. It was positive and he made several key first downs and that was progress. In the quarterback area, that was the biggest plus we had."
There wasn't much separation at the top of the Bengals' quarterback marathon, which Smith entered running third and where he may now see a crack of daylight.
Jon Kitna, pressured all night, finished 8-for-18 passing for 65 yards in his one half of play. Yet his mobility saved a few sacks behind a first-string offensive line that caused some concern with sluggishness against the Bears' stunts and blitzes in the passing game.
Working behind the second line in the third quarter, quarterback Scott Mitchell completed two of four passes for 13 yards. But he was hurt by two holding calls on rookie right guard Victor Leyva and wide receiver Craig Yeast's drop over the middle.
"The other two, it was hard to judge them," said offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski of watching Kitna and Mitchell under pressure. "They're not the same athlete (Smith) is, so it's an ongoing process."
Smith's heroics should have been enough for the Bengals' first victory on the road in the preseason since 1997. Bengals cornerback Robert Bean stepped in front of wide receiver Glyn Milburn on the sideline with what looked to be a 65-yard or so interception return that would at least set up a last-play field goal.
But Bean couldn't outrun Bears quarterback Danny Wuerffel and he ended up fumbling inside the Chicago 10 to send the game into overtime.
Smith was the last of the quarterbacks involved in the training camp competition to work Saturday. But after he checked in with 10:50 left in the game and the Bengals trailing, 13-6, he pushed them 85 yards on 14 plays for their first touchdown. And his teammates noticed.
"He not only had a lot to prove to the fans, but to himself and I think he found something deep inside he knew was always there," said linebacker Takeo Spikes. "He kept fighting."
Smith bolted out of the pocket four times for 31 yards in the drive and tied the game with 1:53 left on an eight-yard dash. He hit his first four passes and most subtly but maybe most importantly, he made a sight adjustment on a blitz to complete a third-down pass and later checked into a run from a pass on a line-of-scrimmage decision at a key moment in overtime.
"There is room for improvement there. There were a couple of formations that weren't called properly," Bratkowski said of Smith's game management. "But for the most part he got us into the right runs and the decisions he made to run were good decisions, which was very encouraging. And they were good runs."
Those decisions were positively glacial last year when he lost his job to Mitchell in the last five games as the Bengals posted the NFL's worst pass offense.
"I was executing the offensive scheme I was taught," Smith said. "(Mobility) is one aspect I think
will give me an edge to beat out Mitch and Kitna. I wanted to show the organization, the fans, (media), that I've got that ability."
Smith converted two third-down situations by shooting through the middle of a collapsing pocket. On third-and-seven from the Bears 26, Smith looked like a running back in breaking safety Larry Whigham's tackle for a nine-yard gain at the two-minute warning.
"My eyes (turned to) the right a little bit," Smith said. "I knew I had (to get the yardage), so I just decided to tuck it and to get the first down. . .Last year, I would have sat back there trying to (go through) my progressions. Two, three, four. . ."
Smith kept the drive going in the infant stages from his own 13 when threw an 18-yard bullet to wide receiver Malcolm Johnson over the middle on third-and-12. That's when Smith reacted to a blitz and found Johnson open one-on-one. In fact, on the previous play, Smith completed a seven-yard pass to receiver Chad Plummer on third-and-2, but Plummer was called for pushing off.
Smith didn't do much in overtime to move the club, but he did show pre-snap smarts. on the team's last offensive play of the game. Facing a fourth-and-three from the Bears 37, Smith went to the line with a pass play but correctly checked into a run when the linebacker walked off the line of scrimmage. Running back Curtis Keaton could only get two of the three yards to set up the Bears' winning drive.
LeBeau wants more big passing plays, but he's untroubled Smith ran it down the field instead of throwing it.
"I think if he can run as effectively as he did in the game Saturday night, it's a weapon we should utilize," LeBeau said. "I'm not interested in him becoming the next Corey Dillon, but he was effective."
The play Smith wanted back came on the previous snap, when he threw his only incompletion of a 4-for-5 night.
"I dropped back, took a hitch, I saw the corner was to the inside and I threw it high to Plummer," Smith said. "(If it's completed) we come away with a victory."
LeBeau wasn't pleased with the pass protection on third down as the Bengals had a dreadful 4-for-15 conversion rate. He said the quarterbacks were under so much pressure, particularly Kitna in the first half, that it was hard to judge them because they didn't have time to do much.
Right tackle Willie Anderson was miffed at his unit, but he also didn't seem very happy that the Bears' defense came out with some games on the defensive line so early in preseason. He said Chicago was picking off the tackles with a linebacker, which made the guards vulnerable to looping defensive ends.
"I'm mad because we should have played better and I think we should have looked better than we looked," Anderson said. "They couldn't get there with a straight four-man rush. They had to do the b.s. to get there. I think we've got a good pass-rushing unit with the two tackles and the inside people we have.
"I give the second line credit," Anderson said. "They blocked it the way it should have been blocked and put (the offense) in second-and-five, third-and-short."
After his Bengals' debut, left tackle Richmond Webb said now is the time to clean up the fundamentals of reacting to a defense's nuances.
"We just weren't in sync tonight," Webb said. "If we picked it up on the right, we didn't get it on the left and vice versa."
Anderson also pointed to the trials of learning a new offense in which much of the changes came in the line's pass-protection calls.
"A lot of it has to do with learning a new offense," Anderson said, "and calls that are totally new. Then the defense is throwing something at you haven't seen on film."
Cincinnati was 3-for-9 on third down in the second half as 36-year-old left tackle John Jackson anchored things by playing the last three quarters of the five-quarter game.
"Not bad for an old man, huh?" Jackson asked. "We're going to find out that people just aren't going to stand there and let us block them."
Smith didn't stand around in the pocket and guys like Anderson, last year's offensive captain, took notes.
"He did what the coaches asked him to do," Anderson said. "He had a lot of help from the second line and I give them credit. Akili and those guys never quit and gave us a chance to win ."