Monday, October 09, 2000

Akili saves best move for media




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        Akili Smith was surrounded, but he could still see some daylight. He knew if he could break containment, there was nothing to stop him. He turned to face the pressure, squared his shoulders, and made a run for it.

        He split the television cameras flanking his locker and scrambled away from the assembled scribes before the first question could be fired. The Cincinnati Bengals' young quarterback reads media defenses as if they were double-spaced. Pity that he's not so proficient at football.

        Smith's decision to silently bolt Paul Brown Stadium in the wake of Sunday's 23-14 loss to the Tennessee Titans reflected his mounting frustration and continuing futility. The Bengals are 0-5 and their offense is a study in stagnation.

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Akili Smith watches the final seconds tick away with Clif Groce and Corey Dillon.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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        The blame is widely shared, but the burden is borne largely by the guy calling signals. A month ago, Smith carried that burden willingly, graciously assuming responsibility for incompetence beyond his control. Yet as the scope of this season's disaster becomes more clear, both Smith's play and his persona have become less consistent. He's stopped rolling with the punches and started getting pounded by them.

                “Sometimes you try so hard that it gets to the point where you can't relax,” said Bengals fullback Clif Groce. “You can't do anything if you're tensed up. It's not eating the pork that kills you, it's the stress.”

        Akili Smith practices as if he hasn't a care in the world. He played Sunday as if the rent was due and he was overdrawn. Instead of leading his receivers, he often trailed them, throwing the ball bafflingly behind his intended target.

        He finished the day with 10 completions in 23 attempts for 85 yards, and those numbers would likely have been worse had the Titans not played so soft on the Bengals' last drive.

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Smith fumbles when blindsided by Kenny Holmes.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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        The Bengals made four first downs in the game's first 58 minutes. Peter Warrick did not catch a pass until minute 59. For the fourth time in five games, the Bengals failed to score in the second half. For the first time, the wisdom of staying with Smith is deserving of debate.

        If the Bengals' season is already doomed — and what other conclusion could you draw? — it probably makes more sense to endure Smith's growing pains than to delay his development in pursuit of a lower draft choice.

        Yet it hardly seems fair to Dick LeBeau to evaluate his head-coaching potential based on the performance of a quarterback who acknowledged last week that he's still a relative rookie on the National Football League's learning curve.

        Asked Sunday about the depth of his commitment to Smith, LeBeau replied that it was “deep.”

        “Quarterback is a tough position,” LeBeau said. “We've got to — all of us — do our jobs a little bit better, get through a 60-minute game and we've got to recognize it's not going to be easy. Some things I think we're beginning to understand. Some we have yet to get done.”

        Even if LeBeau were inclined to experiment, Bengals President Mike Brown tends to make the call when quarterbacks get replaced, and he has a bigger stake in Smith than he does in Scott Mitchell. Boomer Esiason, the most appealing quarterback at Paul Brown Stadium Sunday, reiterated that he's not coming out of retirement.

        Absent a better alternative, the Bengals will likely stick with the status quo.

        “Akili's a young quarterback,” Groce said. “I tell him to relax, to think of this as eighth-grade football. You can't win when you're as frustrated as he is.”

        E-mail: tsullivan@enquirer.com

       



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Titans 23, Bengals 14
- SULLIVAN: Akili saves best move for media
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