Welcome to Akili's Room

The Bengals locker room now has the little big things.

Big towels. Bigger socks. The biggest laundry bags this side of Procter & Gamble.

Yet one thing equipment manager Rob Recker can't give this room is a XXXL leader the size of a Boomer Esiason or an Anthony Munoz. Go down the roster of the '90s, and the veterans who were supposed to lead never quite got around to it.

Just ask Esiason, who came here in 1997 as a backup quarterback and retired a locker room icon.

"When it came to the leadership mantle, Jeff (Blake) or Carl Pickens wasn't sturdy enough to assume it," Esiason said today. "A true leader is someone who is secure enough to say publicly he's got to play better himself."

Enter Akili Smith, the Bengals franchise quarterback. The opportunity to take over this room with his youthful optimism and overthrow veteran cynicism is as wide as Pickens' empty locker.

"Now is the premium time for him," Esiason said, " but I think it's an awful lot to ask of a second-year player."

But as defensive captain Takeo Spikes said after today's first voluntary workout, "He's got no choice. Willie (Anderson) and I have been talking to him. Willie told him, "You're the leader of a multi-million dollar company now. You're going to take some bumps and bruises. But use us as a crutch, and when you get rolling, we'll be right there behind you.'"

Smith, a high school point guard, a minor-league catcher and a record-breaking college quarterback, doesn't blink when it comes to leadership. He knows that "Without wins, you can't be a leader." But he also knows he has the Type A personality people can find magnetic.

"I'm a people person and I think you get respect that way," Smith said. "I'm ready to step up."

Smith, who turns 25 in August, didn't just fall off the turnip truck. From the moment he walked into the locker room last year, he knew immediately there was a leadership vacuum. Compare that to 1983, when current Bengals defensive line coach Tim Krumrie walked into Spinney Field greener than a Wisconsin pasture and could tell the leaders without a scorecard.

Munoz. Ken Anderson. Dave Lapham. Reggie Williams.

"We need it to be somebody's locker room," said Willie Anderson, the fifth-year right tackle who is becoming more and more vocal. "We need someone to make it their locker room. We had it for a minute with Boomer. It's Akili's time now. Maybe not by words right now, but by action. He's got to earn being a captain. It shouldn't come from a coach. You shouldn't be the captain just because you're the quarterback. That's happened around here at times, and they've been terrible leaders."

The biggest thing going for Smith is that guys like Anderson and Spikes are in his corner. Not only do they think Smith can re-shape the room, but they want him to. And they want to help. Anderson and Spikes are two of the Bengals' best young veterans. Players the rest of team respects, solid guys now seasoned enough to assert themselves vocally. And it's easier without some brooding veterans lurking.

"The eyes tell what it's in the soul," said Spikes, a third-year linebacker. "I look at (Smith) I see a leader. He knows what's expected of him. He has high expectations for himself. What I see in him is that fire. You don't see that in a lot of guys' eyes."

Leadership doesn't always happen in a closed-door meeting in the pit of a losing streak. It can happen on cloudless day in early May, like today, when Spikes stepped in front of a Smith pass and picked it off. About five plays later, during a water break, Spikes stared at Smith. Their eyes met.

Spikes had given Smith a jab step as he dropped into coverage. So Smith was wary of throwing a shallow cross. But then, at the last instant, Spikes jumped back in front of Smith.

"I told him to make sure to go back and look at the film," Spikes said. "To see whether or not you stared at the position too long or not long enough. I know he's going to take it upon himself to go back and watch the film."

That's leadership. From two guys. Esiason likes what he hears about Smith's personality and off-field demeanor. But he knows Smith won't be able to truly lead until he can do what Esiason did in 1997. Call a play in the huddle, send out nine guys and then pull wide receiver Darnay Scott aside and tell him he's the fourth option unless the safety bites and then it's coming to him. Or put an arm around Willie Anderson between series and tell him who he's got to block when the inside linebacker shows a blitz they've never seen.

"That's a lot easier for a 14th-year guy instead of a second-year guy," Esiason said. "He's going to have to know the offense inside and out."

Smith is trying. He's been at Spinney since February, studying tape. For now, that's good enough for a locker room needing to hear Boomer's echo.

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