Smith wants to find out, too

12-12-01, 2:20 P.M. Updated:
12-12-01, 8:55 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Has Akili Smith stopped holding the ball in the pocket?

Can Akili Smith get the Bengals' offense in and out of the right formations?

Has Akili Smith improved enough to be re-considered as Cincinnati's franchise quarterback?

"I want to know. The Bengals want to know. Hell, the whole NFL wants to know," said Smith Wednesday. "But the only way we're going to find out is when I play a game. Trying to simulate how fast the Jets are going to be playing out there on the practice field is extremely hard. There's no way you can do it. You can sit back there and throw accurate passes all day with no live bullets. I'm curious to see what happens Sunday."

Join the club. All signs Wednesday pointed to Smith making his first start since the 48-28 loss to Pittsburgh at Paul Brown Stadium on Nov. 26, 2000. Jon Kitna couldn't make a fist with the sprained middle finger on his throwing hand, but head coach Dick LeBeau pulled some punches to keep the Jets in the dark about Sunday's starter.

"Jon is the starter, but there's a mitigating circumstance there," LeBeau said. "He's got a severe injury to a throwing hand finger, so I can't sit up here and say that Jon is going to start this week. I don't know how his finger is going to respond. Akili will be given the preparation to be the starting quarterback this week and we'll see how Jon progresses as the week goes.

Kitna didn't practice Wednesday and won't Thursday, but will give it a go Friday and LeBeau indicated there won't be a firm call until game time at the Meadowlands. And, LeBeau said there isn't a decision on whether Smith should be the starter even without an injury in response to the Bengals' five-game losing streak in which Kitna has thrown two touchdown passes and seven interceptions.

Even with some new weapons on offense and the receivers a year older, Kitna's NFL-low 64.1 passer rating and 5.4 yards per attempt nearly mirror Smith's 52.8 and 4.7 from a year ago at this time, when the Bengals didn't think it could get much worse.

Told that the most popular guy in town always seems to be the backup quarterback or kicker, Bengals President Mike Brown joked, "That's why I want to become the backup owner." But all gags aside, Brown is just as curious as his quarterback and classifies the position as "game-to-game."

"It will probably depend on whether (Smith) gets a chance to get in there and what he does," Brown said. "I don't think there's any cut-and-dried decision on this. This is something we'll play by ear as we go along. Practice to practice, game to game. Right now, Jon can't handle a ball, so it's an easy call. How it will look after Sunday is what we'll decide after we see Sunday."

Smith, 3-12 as a starter, is coming off an unmitigated disaster last season. He had three touchdowns and six interceptions with just 1,253 yards in 11 starts in which he completed 44 percent of his passes. Since he threw two touchdown passes in his NFL debut on Oct. 10, 1999 in Cleveland, he has thrown three touchdown passes in his last 341 attempts.

One veteran said Wednesday it will be key for Smith to get off to a good start if he wants his mates to rally around him and bury the bad karma from last year: "He should talk to them before and let them know it's going to be different."

As Smith leafed through "The Bible," after Wednesday's practice looking for proverbs, he ticked off a few of the major things he didn't have last year:

More maturity. A friendlier offense that is very similar to what he ran at Oregon. Speed receivers in Darnay Scott and Chad Johnson. A Pro Bowl fullback in Lorenzo Neal. A seven-time Pro Bowl left tackle in Richmond Webb.

Wide receiver Ron Dugans says Smith and his team are more disciplined this year. Rookie receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh says Smith will do well if he plays Sunday because he knows the offense.

Maybe even more damaging than Smith's numbers last season were the whispers that Smith had fallen out of

the playbook with more partying than passes. He reiterated Wednesday that he only veered from the straight and narrow after last year's November benching and that it hasn't been a problem this year.

"I didn't start hanging out until after I got benched. When I was the starter, I was focused," Smith said. "I don't know if the coaches and the city got the impression that I was hanging out all during the season, but I wasn't until after I wasn't playing. I was disappointed. I was depressed and that's when I started hanging out."

LeBeau says Smith's command of the offense hasn't been a problem, only the execution.

"I think he was a young quarterback that went into a tough situation as the year unfolded. I think that he benefited from coming out of there," LeBeau said. "If he plays then we will see where he is now. I am sure that he is more relaxed and more confident than he was when we made the switch last year.

"It was never in my mind a lack of the command of the offense or making the calls or getting the people into formation and those kinds of things," LeBeau said. "Let's face it, this guy is a big time quarterback. He was a number one draft pick. He comes out of the University of Oregon. This is not chopped liver we're talking about in terms of level of coaching and football playing. He's a talented athlete. I don't have a problem with his command of the offense. The execution of such, we will see."

Dugans, who caught one of those three TDs in his first NFL game, thinks everyone has grown up from last year.

"He really hasn't had the chance," Dugans said. "He's been good in the classroom. He's showing that he's ready to lead. He's got more discipline this year, along with a lot of other guys. It was like with me, when you lose your job, you start to appreciate what you had and you try harder to get it back."

Johnson, who would love the Bengals to go deep like they did early in last Sunday's game, thinks they will if Smith gets the call.

"Akili's got a cannon," Johnson said. "I wouldn't be surprised if he can throw it 80 yards. To me, there's no difference in our quarterbacks. Kitna has the experience. Akili can run and he's learning. I like them both."

Houshmandzadeh wasn't with the Bengals last season, but he likes what he sees from Smith, a guy he admired from across the way at Oregon State.

"If he goes in, I really think he can do well," Houshmandzadeh said. "I really do. I think he's learned from his first couple of years. He's young, he had a lot of money, he wanted to have fun and he realizes you can't do that now. That's why I think he'll do better. He's more prepared than he was. He knows what it takes."

As for Kitna, he said he'll play if he can. He says it will be ready by game time.

"The whole thing is for me to be able to grip a ball. It is not really an integral part," Kitna said. "The middle finger is not one of the fingers that you put a lot of pressure with, but it is necessary. If I can play, then I don't think it will be a problem, as on Sunday. It wasn't a problem at all on Sunday after I hurt it. I hurt it in the third quarter. I played the whole fourth quarter. It was sore. Once you get out there, you get that little extra adrenaline and you're fine. I don't think that it would be a problem at all"

He also reiterated what he's been saying since last month. He has a great relationship with Smith: "He's very supportive on Sunday. When I hurt my finger, he was like. . .'Get back out there Kit.'"

But he's also adamant about sticking with one quarterback and how he feels the good teams don't keep experimenting.

"If you think that I'm your guy, then there's no reason to take me out of the game," Kitna said. "If you think that I'm your guy, then leave me in the game and let me play the season out and hopefully we can build on some things and get better and get ready for next season. I guess that's my line of thinking, but again, I don't make those decisions."

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