The two left behind

10-2-02, 7:40 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Akili Smith just took a minicourse in political science, NFL style, Wednesday when he went from starting quarterback to No. 3 in the time it takes a coach to read the writing on the wall.

At 0-4, Dick LeBeau and his staff need to win games soon, and so the head coach told the team Wednesday Jon Kitna is the guy for the foreseeable future, and the franchise quarterback is back on the shelf again wondering if he can play.

"I think it's important that we stabilize things. I told Jon to get ready to play and not to look over his shoulder," LeBeau said.

After Smith's no-touchdown start Sunday against the Buccaneers (12-for-33, 117 yards, one interception), he watched Jon Kitna direct the first team for the first time since training camp and Gus Frerotte run the scout team at Wednesday's practice.

"I'm going crazy. There's a lot of politics involved in this game," Smith said before practice. "Coaches are like quarterbacks. They're fighting for their jobs. They're trying to win games. They don't have time for me to grow as a quarterback. It's been that way.

"This is business," Smith said. "They don't care about being fair around here. There are guys on this team fighting for jobs. There are coaches on this team fighting for jobs. It ain't about being fair, it's about trying to find the right mix."

Smith thinks he is far enough out of the mix that he wants out of Cincinnati before his contract expires after the 2004 season if the quarterback roulette wheel keeps spinning. He plans to sit down with agent Joby Branion at the end of the season, and he's mulling about asking for a trade.

"I haven't talked to the team yet about why they are changing to their third quarterback in three weeks, so I can't say all that much," Branion said from his Southern California office.

Bengals President Mike Brown said Wednesday that Smith is still very much in the club's future simply because the future is murky at quarterback. This is just after he has made 17 starts, two since December of 2000, and has thrown three touchdown passes in his last 382 attempts.

"If we don't get going, it increases the chances for the other guys as we go longer," Brown said. "In this last game, Akili wasn't as much to blame as the guys who were supporting him. I though he did some things that were encouraging, but we

didn't score a touchdown and he didn't make much yardage. In this business , you're judged on the bottom line. The coaches feel right now we had such a terrible time getting going that they want to go with Jon because he's the solid customer they know. They feel he has the best grasp of the offense and that he can run the team well. We are still trying to win games. We always want to win games, first, second and last."

Translation: If the season continues to spiral out of control in the next month or so like an Oliver Stone movie, you'll probably see Smith again.

Branion is looking for answers.

"We know Akili is an immensely talented quarterback who needs a legitimate opportunity," Branion said. "Given the tumult swirling around there now, I don't think there's a quick answer. I don't think there's a quick answer this week."

Branion said he'll talk about many things with Smith and, "find out what his feelings are."

Smith has already made it known. If it's going to be like this, he wants out.

"I hope Kitna does well," Smith said. "If he does do well, get rid of me man. I can't keep going through this. There's no way. I'm going to sit down with my agent and see what the heck is going on. The way this is panning out, no. I don't like it. I'll be the first to say, 'I'll go.'"

Smith thinks the prorated portion of his $10.8 million signing bonus is now manageable enough to cut him.

If the Bengals release him after next June 1, his hit against the '03 salary cap would be about $2 million.

All of which leaves Frerotte as the odd man out after he played 9.5 quarters as the Opening Day quarterback and threw one touchdown with five interceptions.

"I hope he goes in and does well," Frerotte said. "We need a win bad. My sense is Jon is the guy and that's good. It's good to know there is one guy."

All three quarterbacks agree that the uncertainty spawned by the quarterback derby in training camp hurt the team. The effort to be fair and to be careful of hurting egos, they say, backfired.

"I'd rather have somebody come out and lay it on the line for me," Frerotte said. "Come out and say this is what we want, this is what we're doing, and this is the direction we want to go in. When you don't know, it makes it a lot harder.

"It's hard for all three of us," Frerotte said. "How can we have confidence in ourselves if the coaches coaching us or the people who are paying you don't. I'm not putting anybody down, it's just that's what I was searching for four, five years. Someone who is going to have confidence in me. When I came here, that's what I thought would happen and it hasn't happened."

Frerotte asked a reporter who the backup and No. 3 QBs are this week, underscoring the frustration of being kept in the dark. He was told LeBeau plans to decide later in the week. After not throwing at all last week to rest a sprained thumb, Frerotte threw easily Wednesday.

Frerotte, who signed a one-year deal May 1, bore the brunt of his lack of timing, a struggling offensive line that was supposed to be a strength, and a six-receiver rotation that is as mind-numbing as the quarterback derby. But he knew it would be tough early in a new offense.

"There were going to be bumps in the road when I was in there," Frerotte said. "I hadn't had that experience with all the guys on offense. No matter how much you think you know it, there is still stuff you learn when you play it."

Frerotte couldn't hide the disappointment of a 31-year-old former Pro Bowler seeking one last stand. He thinks he had a fair shot, but it exacted a steep price.

"We all got equal reps, played the same amount," said Frerotte of training camp. "But in retrospect, it probably wasn't the right thing for the team. Nobody got enough reps with anybody.

"I'll be supportive of Jon and I hope he does real well throughout this year," Frerotte said. "But for me, if I don't get back in there, what about my future? If I don't play again, people are looking at what you did the first three games. And the way things went, all the problems that we had pretty much fell to the quarterback, so everybody says."

Smith knows the feeling. He thought he missed "four or five throws." But he also had wide receiver Chad Johnson wide open down the field past a sprawled defensive back, yet the protection didn't hold up on the play.

"The quarterback takes the (blame)," Smith said "The quarterback and the head coach. It just happened to be me this week."

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