Monday, June 2, 2003

Akili sums it up: 'Hell'


Set to be released, ex-franchise QB recounts his Bengals career

By Mark Curnutte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

PHOTO GALLERY

Photos of Akili Smith
Akili Smith describes the four years he spent with the Bengals as "hell."

"It's been hell for everybody," said Smith, who will be released today by the team that drafted him with the third overall pick in 1999.

"I'm kind of baffled that they drafted me. Ten games into my second season, they benched me, and it was over after that."

In a telephone interview late Saturday, the day he learned he would be cut, Smith reflected on his four years with the Bengals.

There were a few isolated high points, but mainly, Smith said, they will be the years when "things didn't go right."

Smith's run will go down with David Klingler's - the quarterback the Bengals drafted sixth overall in 1992 - as two of the most disappointing in franchise history.

After the 2000 season, in which Smith averaged 113.9 yards passing in 11 starts, the Bengals hired a new offensive coordinator, Bob Bratkowski, and signed free agent quarterback Jon Kitna.

"Kitna and Brat were together in Seattle, and I knew Kit was Brat's guy," Smith said. "I knew I was done."

Smith's career with the Bengals started under a cloud.

After Bengals president Mike Brown turned down a trade offer from New Orleans, which was offering eight-to-nine draft picks to ensure the team got running back Ricky Williams, to take Smith at No. 3, the quarterback held out for 27 days in a contract dispute.

Smith missed training camp, but still showed signs as a rookie that maybe Brown was right.

After the Bengals started 0-4 in 1999 with Jeff Blake as the starting quarterback, Smith made his first start Oct. 10 at Cleveland against the expansion Browns. Smith led an 80-yard touchdown drive in the final 2:04 as the Bengals won 18-17.

"That was the highest point of all," Smith said of his first start.

Smith started and won 12-3 at Cleveland on Oct. 29, 2000 - his third and final victory in 17 Bengals starts.

Smith started the next two games, but was benched after a 23-6 loss Nov. 12 at Dallas, in which he was 10-for-25 passing for 68 yards. Rookie coach Dick LeBeau turned to Scott Mitchell, and Smith would start just one more game - a Nov. 26 loss to the Steelers - when Mitchell was hurt.

"The Dallas game was the lowest point of all," Smith said. "All the pressure was put on me ... It was just my second year."

After the Pittsburgh game, Smith played in just three more games for the Bengals. He finished third in a three-quarterback derby at training camp 2001. Kitna won the job. Mitchell was the backup. Smith was relegated to clipboard duty.

Smith mopped up at the two-minute warning Nov. 25, 2001, at Cleveland - site of his greatest triumphs. Browns fans booed and laughed when a shotgun snap sailed over Smith's head.

This dark hour, though, led to an apparent dawn. On Dec. 16, Smith started at the Jets and led the offense on a 20-play, 81-yard touchdown drive to open the game. He threw for 35 yards and rushed for 20 in a quarter-plus of action, but a five-yard scramble ended with Smith tearing his left hamstring.

"I was so comfortable that day. I loved (Bratkowski's offensive) system," Smith said. "That's why it brought tears to my eyes when I got hurt. I honestly felt like I, like the offense, was headed in the right direction. I felt cursed."

Surgery ended the 2001 season, and Smith would make his only appearance of 2002 - a start - on Sept. 29 at home against Tampa Bay, when he spent the afternoon on the run, finishing with 117 passing yards in the 35-7 loss.

Gus Frerotte had started the first three games. Smith had been No. 3 on the depth chart.

"I had three, four days to get ready, two full-speed practices," Smith said. "The next thing I knew, it was over, and I was No. 3 again."

Smith would not play again for the Bengals. Rookie coach Marvin Lewis on Saturday told Smith's agent, Kennard McGuire, that Smith's release will come today.

The Bengals signed 10-year veteran Shane Matthews on Saturday to back-up starter Kitna. Rookie Carson Palmer will likely open the season as the third quarterback. He won't be rushed like Klingler and Smith.

Still, in spite of the repeated disappointments, Smith does leave Cincinnati with some fond memories.

Kitna had the greatest influence on Smith.

"I like Kitna a lot," he said. "I learned more from Kitna than anybody, how he carried himself off the field, his walk in Christ."

Then there are Bengals fans, a hardy bunch that supports the team even after 12 heart-breaking years.

"I thank the fans for all their support," said Smith, who will turn 28 on Aug. 21. "My career is definitely not over. Twenty-two games. Seventeen starts. I've got a lot of football left in me."

Akili timeline

Akili Smith played in 22 games with 17 starts in four seasons with the Bengals. He will be released today. A look back at his four-year Bengals career:

April 17, 1999: Drafted third overall after Bengals president Mike Brown turns down the Saints' offer of eight-to-nine draft picks to trade up with the Bengals. "It was a generous offer, but we felt now is the time to get the quarterback," is what Brown said to explain his decision.

Aug. 24, 1999: Ends 27-day contract holdout to sign seven-year deal with a $10.8 million signing bonus.

Sept. 12, 1999: Makes NFL debut in relief of starter Jeff Blake in opener at Tennessee.

Oct. 10, 1999: Makes first NFL start at Cleveland, directing 10-play, 80-yard drive for the winning touchdown.

Oct. 31, 1999: Season ends with severe right big toe sprain.

Sept. 10, 2000: Makes first of 10 consecutive starts, with 2-8 record, before losing job to Scott Mitchell.

Nov. 25, 2001: Plays in relief at end of game at Cleveland and says the Bengals should trade him if they don't plan to play him.

Dec. 16, 2001: Makes only start of season, leading offense on opening 20-play, 81-yard touchdown drive; tears left hamstring early in second quarter, which requires season-ending surgery.

Sept. 29, 2002: Makes only appearance of season, starting a 35-7 loss against Tampa Bay at home; moved back to emergency third quarterback and says that team should trade him.

May 31, 2003: Told the Bengals will release him on June 2.

Comparing David Klingler vs. Akili Smith

QB Draft pick College Yrs with club W-L Att.-Comp. Yards TDs Int
Klingler Sixth, 1992 Houston 1992-95 4-20 687-375 3,880 16 21
Smith Third, 1999 Oregon 1999-02 3-14 461-215 2,212 5 13
Note: Win-loss record is based on games as a starter.

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E-mail mcurnutte@enquirer.com




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