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Tale of two QBs

8-23-01, 8:20 p.m.


GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ Remember the two quarterbacks the Bengals took in the 1999 NFL Draft?

First-rounder Akili Smith and seventh-rounder Scott Covington shared big-time senior seasons, agent to the quarterback icons Leigh Steinberg, and an accurate right arm.

And on Thursday night, before the last Bengals' practice of training camp here at Georgetown College, they shared their pain as NFL veterans Scott Mitchell and Jon Kitna prepare to decide who wins the No. 1 quarterback job this Saturday against Buffalo.

Smith wondered if there was a hex on him this season while bravely talking about overcoming his aching throwing shoulder, "to put on a show and make this thing a lot more interesting than what people really think it is."

But even Smith has doubts he can play Saturday night while Covington, the even man out in what was once a three-quarterback, race, thinks he belonged in the mix.

"Why not me?" asked Covington before what might be his last Cincinnati practice. "I don't really see anything that anyone is doing that is above and beyond what I can do. I think that's been apparent with the opportunities I've been given.

"That's the hard part," Covington said. "I don't feel anyone is out there now where I think, 'Wow, I couldn't make that throw.'"

At least Covington can throw. For the ninth straight practice, Smith couldn't with his mild case of shoulder

tendinitis that got inflamed on a hit two weeks ago against Detroit.

"Injuries are part of the game," said Smith, who is starting to see a stint on the bench at least early in the season. "I may not get in until the middle of the season, something like the eighth game. This is a funny game. Who knows? I might end playing early or be on the bench all year."

Smith is holding out hope that he could play with a miracle Saturday morning and head coach Dick LeBeau is politely not ruling him out all the way. But LeBeau acknowledged Thursday he won't play Smith if he has any pain in the shoulder. And 48 hours before the game, Smith said the shoulder is still sore.

"I'm going to go to the pre-game meal, try to loosen up a little bit, play long toss, and if it feels OK, I'll try to let it rip," Smith said. "I have nothing to lose at all because they're making a decision this week."

Covington can throw, but he still might not get in his first game of the preseason even with Smith shelved. LeBeau said Mitchell will start and work a quarter and half and Kitna will follow for a quarter and a half, "and then we'll see how the game goes. . .Maybe one of the two will come back to finish it off."

While Smith has sat, Covington has practiced and practiced well after virtually getting no snaps from scrimmage the first three weeks of camp.

When Kitna went down with Smith last week briefly, Covington and Mitchell combined for the first 20-for-20 seven-on-seven passing drill of camp.

"When you've got a '57 Chevy," said tight end Marco Battaglia, "you just can't keep it in the garage and take it out to drive only so often. You've got to drive it."

Covington, who outfought the sought after Cade McNown in college during Miami's 49-45 win over UCLA, admits it's "been awful," sitting and watching. But he hasn't said stuff and he's had a mouthful.

"I think they understand I'm frustrated, but maybe that says something," Covington said. "I don't know what it says, except that I'm a guy who won't make a bad situation worse.

"I think other teams respect what I can do and I'm pretty sure there's going to be some interest (if/when he gets cut)."

The Bengals like his smarts, savvy and patience. But one thing that did hurt Covington in some corners of Bengaldom is that he turned down the club a couple of times when the Bengals asked him to play in NFL Europe. In fact, Mitchell and Kitna blazed the trail for Kurt Warner and others to use Europe as a springboard to the NFL.

But Covington has also seen several quarterbacks go overseas and still get cut by their teams. He always felt he had a better chance working within the Bengals' offense during minicamp and voluntary workouts. Particularly when the Bengals got a new scheme and new coordinator this spring.

"The circumstances have been pretty much the same the last couple of years," Covington said. "I always thought there was going to be an opportunity here the next year and something would happen to take your feet out from under you."

Call it a tale of two quarterbacks from the Class of '99.

Smith admitted his injury has turned this thing into a two-man race. With Smith's injury giving him more reps, Covington wonders if it could have been a four-man race.

Football is a funny game, but then Smith already said that.

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