BY GEOFF HOBSON
IRVING, Texas _ Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman emerged from his retirement party here Sunday at drip-dry Texas Stadium just long enough to remind the Bengals how far quarterback Akili Smith is away from being a franchise quarterback.
With no running game or front-line receivers, Aikman came out of his season-long mothballs to carve the Bengals for 308 yards with throws to someone named James McKnight or Wayne McGarity.
Aikman hit 12 of his first 13 passes and finished 24-for-37 in making Cincinnati pay for a punchless pass rush.
Meanwhile, the horrors for Smith continue. With running back Corey Dillon getting 4.7 yards per carry and the offensive line offering decent pass protection, Smith still couldn't get the ball down field. The longest of his 10 completions (out of 25 passes) went 15 yards to receiver Peter Warrick. Smith's last pass to a receiver that was 20 yards or more was eight games ago.
"In the back of my mind, we knew it might get ugly," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "We had a rookie quarterback and we were missing veteran receivers like Darnay Scott, Carl Pickens, James Hundon."
Are the receivers open? Is he missing them? Are the long routes being called?
"There were a lot of down-field routes called," said Bengals coach Dick LeBeau. "But whatever the reason is, the ball's not going there. There's pressure, or he doesn't like what he sees. We're trying to get the ball up field."
Smith has run out of answers. Aikman had them all Sunday.
"This guy's a very accurate quarterback," said Bengals cornerback Rodney Heath. "He didn't get put on his back as much as he has (this season), when Philly got him. They blitzed him and put him down.
"He had time to throw back there," Heath said. "A couple of five-step drops, run some (quick) posts and when he had time, he put it out there."
While Smith overthrew Warrick in the back of the end zone on the Bengals' first scoring drive, overthrew receiver Craig Yeast in the third quarter at the Cowboy 10, and threw behind Warrick and tight end Tony McGee early in the game, Aikman was grace under pressure.
Smith, meanwhile, suffered his fourth sack-and-fumble this season after a blindside hit, which led to a Dallas touchdown, and had some wondering if he could have stepped up in the pocket to avoid the hit.
Chased out of the pocket in the second quarter, Aikman began to sprint out of bounds before underhanding a flip pass to wide open running back Emmitt Smith in the flat for a 19-yard gain.
Two plays before Cowboys kicker Tim Seder ran a fake field goal for a one-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, Aikman rolled to his right and had enough time to point, wave and will McGarity into the corner at the 1 for a three-yard flip.
"Aikman has great timing," Heath said. "He throws the ball in areas where he expects the receivers to be. A lot of times the passes were out before the (receivers made their) breaks. That's tough to cover. You can only play it honestly. Just trying to make a play on it, hoping he can make a mistake."
As Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham said of the injuries to the Cowboys' top receivers, "What if Joey Galloway and Rocket Ismail were playing? Wow. What we call going down the field is just an intermediate pass for Aikman.
"What you're seeing is a rookie quarterback who just doesn't get it yet," Lapham said. "And a veteran who anticipates where to throw the football. Aikman throws it when his guys are coming out of their cuts. Akili's holding the ball and the timing is off. Akili wasn't accurate today, but it wasn't all him. Sometimes his receivers got locked up and couldn't get open. One thing always seems to break down." . . .
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Smith's fourth sack-and-fumble after getting hit in the back from his blindside that changed the momentum of a close game again. Just like against Miami and Tennessee.
This time it was Cowboys end Ebenezer Ekuban racing past left tackle Rod Jones and stripping Smith at the Cincinnati 29 and Dallas only leading, 10-6. Six plays later, the Cowboys had the 17-6 lead, thanks to Seder.
But Anderson said not to be too sure that Jones was at fault.
Anderson thought Jones handled Ekuban well by riding him to the outside and that he was lucky to jerk the ball loose by ripping Smith's shoulder as Jones rode him by.
"If you talk to the quarterback tomorrow, he may say maybe he should have stepped up," Anderson said. "But then he may have had guys in his face and he couldn't step up. Won't know until you see the film. When he gets a little older, he can feel that pressure right there. That's one thing I worry about is that pocket presence. As a tackle, that's a momentum changer."
But Anderson thinks Smith should stay in the lineup.
"Don't forget," he said, "this is his rookie year. He's got to play."