BY GEOFF HOBSON
Bengals quarterback Akili Smith took the fall for the NFL's worst passing offense Monday when he was benched in favor of backup Scott Mitchell.
Smith had no comment as he left Paul Brown Stadium about 90 minutes after coach Dick LeBeau told a team meeting of the move. LeBeau told the Bengals he felt it was beneficial for the team to make the switch even though Smith isn't the only reason the Bengals are on pace to score a franchise-low 149 points.
The pass defense also appeared to have a casualty after Sunday's 23-6 loss in Dallas. Left cornerback Tom Carter said he expects rookie Robert Bean to be named the starter Wednesday for Sunday's game in New England.
LeBeau told his players he isn't quitting on Smith and told the media the benching, "would just give him a chance to catch his breath. He's just not producing like he knows he can and I just think it's an opportunity for him to pause momentarily."
But there is alarm in the organization. They know Mitchell is now the seventh different player to start a game for the Bengals at quarterback since David Klingler was drafted as a franchise quarterback in 1992.
What progress Smith showed during his first full season as an NFL starter has slowed to standstill, just two years after the Bengals pinned the next decade on him with the third pick in the 1999 Draft while turning down nine draft picks from the Saints to keep the spot.
Smith hasn't thrown a touchdown pass in 27 straight quarters. In his 14 NFL starts, he's finished off seven touchdown drives. His 4.6-yard per pass is smaller than Bengals running back Corey Dillon's 4.8 yards per rush.
At the bottom of the league's major passing categories, Smith is still 477 passing yards shy of the 1,601-yard mark triggering a $1.7 million salary for next season and $4 million in salary over the next four years.
Averaging 92 yards per game this season, the $3 million trigger for next year in the 2,500-yard range is nowhere in sight.
The Bengals and Smith had to think 1,601 was a lock when the deal was signed just before the 1999 season opened. In 1998, every team had at least one quarterback who hit at least 1,601.
But while some of Smith's offensive teammates didn't openly question the switch, some made it clear they don't think he's received a lot of help with a stable of first- and second-year receivers and poor pass protection during the first month of the season.
Mitchell suggested the passing game has been plagued by hesitancy and looks at the running game as a basic, simple model. In fact, Mitchell said if any play isn't 100 percent clear to everyone, he wants it out of the game plan.
"I think it's pretty obvious we all haven't been on the same page," said offensive coordinator Ken Anderson.
Other players have privately wondered if the passing game changes too much from week to week without giving Smith and the Bengals the chance to master bread-and-butter plays.
But Anderson says the Bengals haven't changed their core plays all that much each game in an effort to allow Smith to grasp the scheme.
"There's a lot of pressure on Akili and even though you say it doesn't affect you, we all know it does," Anderson said. "Maybe this will be good because it will take off some of the pressure."
Anderson can relate to a moment 15 years ago when he was wrapping up his career as the Bengals' all-time leading passer as Boomer Esiason's backup. He got the call again when Esiason got benched during his second season.
"Boomer had a chance to sit back and see some things and I think that truly helped him," Anderson said.
Right tackle Willie Anderson thinks Smith could have used a Ken Anderson in his first two seasons. Jeff Blake, he says, wasn't the guy.
Willie Anderson said it might have been nice if Smith could have been surrounded by veteran quarterbacks or receivers the way Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper, taken eight spots behind Smith, was embraced by quarterback Randall Cunningham and receivers Cris Carter and Randy Moss.
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"We see how hard (Smith) works in practice. He stayed extra (during the offseason) and did what he was told to do," Willie Anderson said. "He doesn't have the people around him to accommodate him and make him a great player like Culpepper in Minnesota.
"(Smith) and Jeff Blake had no relationship last year. Jeff was fighting for his job. He was doing his own thing," said Anderson of the quarterback now in New Orleans. "Jeff didn't say, 'Hey, I'll show you this, I'll show you that.' (Smith) was trying to figure out the whole ordeal himself. It's hard. We all still support him. We do realize he'll be a special player, but he's still a rookie."
Anderson said it's a good move only if Mitchell plays well.
"Hopefully, Scott can come in there and do some good things so that Akili can see some of that," Willie Anderson said. "He hasn't had a chance to watch anybody do it successfully around here."
Mitchell, 32, an 11-year veteran who came to Cincinnati after two benchings of his own in Detroit in 1998 and last year in Baltimore, said getting sidelined wasn't a benefit. But he also said he was under different circumstances because he was a veteran.
Mitchell did say he benefited watching his backup in Detroit, Dave Krieg, play in his place when he was hurt. But he could empathize with what must be swirling around in Smith.
"I've been on the other side of this before a lot of times and it's not any fun," Mitchell said. "We're all very competitive. . .It's hard to sit down. It's hard to take a back seat. One, you appreciate the time you have out there and make the most of it and, two, when you're not in there you work hard and stay focused and be ready because the way things are, it's going to turn around again and you'll be back in there."
LeBeau made the decision after sleeping on it Sunday night and watching tape Monday morning. Smith's failure to transfer crisp practices into games seems to indicate to the coaches that he's pressing.
"I know in situations like this, a competitive athlete who really, really wants, who's motivated to do well, can sometimes put a tremendous amount of pressure on (himself)," LeBeau said. "That pressure can be counter-productive. I just think this is a solution, or at least a plan, for us to try."