Three men and a ball

7-22-01, 12:30 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ It may be the fairest quarterback controversy in NFL history.

In the 40 plays of the club's first training camp practice Saturday here at Georgetown College, Jon Kitna took 15 snaps, Scott Mitchell 13, and Akili Smith 12.

So the question of the day is in their effort to find a No. 1 quarterback, will the Bengals hurt all of them by limiting their snaps.

Kitna: "I don't think the number of repetitions is going to make that much of a difference. It's no different than any other camp I've been in.

"You don't bring in four guys and have just two take the snaps. It will all work out. There's still seven weeks to the first game. Plenty of time."

Smith: "It's real tough (after taking nearly all the snaps last camp) to deal with it. There's nothing I can do about it. That's the way they want to have the snaps and I have to deal with it the best that I can.

"But it's tough. Anytime you give someone less than a certain number of snaps, it might take awhile to get hot and, boom, you're done and have to watch. I understand why they're doing it. They're trying to find a clear-cut guy."

Mitchell: "I think with this system and the way we're doing it, you can still get a feel for the receivers. As long as we don't change what they're giving us. I would think by the last pre-season game they'll have to pull the trigger and go with one guy."

Even though head coach Dick LeBeau is telling Smith this isn't a make-or-break year for him, the NFL Draft's No. 3 pick from 1999 reminded LeBeau during Saturday's practice, "I'm

fighting for a job out here. I can't fumble snaps or miss reads."

That was after Smith flashed some frustration when a receiver couldn't get to his long pass and LeBeau told him, "Be poised. When something bad happens, bounce back."

But Smith was also angry with himself for missing a hot read and holding on to the ball while everyone else moved through the play. It was his only misread, but Smith is thinking every little bit is going into the decision.

"That's what I was telling Coach LeBeau," Smith said. "I just can't afford that stuff."

Kitna, for one, isn't turning practice into sudden death.

"To me it's going to come down to how I play in the pre-season games," Kitna said. "A lot of guys do well in practice, but the test is what happens when you're getting hit."

SMITH UPDATE: There was no progress on the Justin Smith front, but ESPN.com reported the Bengals' offer at $17.25 million for six years with a $7.5 million signing bonus.

That was in line with Arizona's offer to Leonard Davis, taken two spots ahead of Smith, at $19 million for six years and $8 million to sign.

The Bengals wouldn't confirm the numbers and agent Jim Steiner didn't want to delve into numbers. But it's believed the club has included incentives that could nearly double the deal and make it more valuable annually than last year's No. 1 pick when Peter Warrick got $8.4 million to sign and what amounted to a six-year deal at about $35 million.

Steiner is probably looking at getting a bigger

signing bonus than Warrick, but the Bengals have already said it's difficult to do with a six-year ceiling on contracts. Atlanta got around that by giving overall No. 1 pick Michael Vick guaranteed money in future years outside this year's rookie pool so the bonus wouldn't have to be pro-rated over only six years. The Bengals have said they don't want to violate the rookie pool.

The feeling is that each side is waiting for a team or player to do a deal near the No. 4 pick that is a mirror of what they want. But the closest slot Saturday night was the 10th pick, not close enough to the fourth.

THIS AND THAT: Hadley Engelhard, the agent for defensive captain Takeo Spikes, expects his client into camp late morning or early afternoon Sunday. Spikes is dealing with his father's grave illness. . .

DE Glen Steele (ankle) and G Jeff Chase (upper respiratory infection) won't begin practicing in the next day or two. . .

RB Corey Dillon loves the new offense, especially the three-receiver sets that look more and more like staples rather than wrinkles. Told spreading the defense may cut down on his long runs because the eighth man in the box will probably be off the line of scrimmage, Dillon said: "I don't care how I get them. I don't care if it's six, four, five eight, 30. If they're backing off because of the pass, I think that's great."

HISTORY LESSON: LeBeau said he didn't give much of an opening talk to the team Friday night after Bengals President Mike Brown addressed the club. He thought Brown hit just the right notes in telling the team

about three great figures he knew from the past of the NFL in George Halas, Art Rooney and his father, Paul Brown, and how their dedication made the league great.

Mike Brown told how the Cleveland Browns team Paul Brown coached broke the color barrier in 1946 with Bill Willis and Marion Motley. And how a Miami hotel clerk denied Willis and Motley rooms until Paul Brown said the team would leave if they couldn't stay.

LeBeau told the club he knew what his boss was talking about because he had a connection with all three. LeBeau played and coached for Paul Brown, worked with Rooney's son in Pittsburgh, and played against Halas' Chicago teams.

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