How Bengals fare is up to Akili Smith
By Joe Kay, Associated Press, 08/29/00
CINCINNATI -- The only thing missing from glass-sided, canopy-framed Paul Brown Stadium is a little history. Akili Smith is going to provide it -- for better or worse.
When the Cincinnati Bengals moved into the $453 million stadium over the summer, they were practically giddy over the notion things were looking up for the NFL's most forlorn franchise.
There's one catch: The inexperienced quarterback has to play better than anyone has a right to expect.
"The key for us is going to be how Akili does," general manager Mike Brown said. "I think if he can hold up, we're going to be a much improved team and I like to think a winning team."
More than anyone else, Smith will determine whether the Bengals' first season in their new stadium is a break with their losing past or more of the same old thing.
"It falls on Akili's head," said coach Bruce Coslet, whose job also might depend upon the quarterback's development. "We'll go as far as he can take us."
The first-round draft choice took the Bengals to one of their four wins last season, when they set an NFL record for losses in a decade. Smith directed a last-minute touchdown drive to beat the Cleveland Browns 18-17 in his first start.
He made only three more starts before a foot injury scuttled the rest of his season, leaving him more rookie than veteran this time around.
"Akili's going to have his ups and downs," Coslet said. "In the same breath, the kid is going to make some plays that you will not believe. He's the real deal, I'm convinced of that."
Smith made believers in the preseason, when he completed 65 percent of his passes without throwing an interception and had a 90.4 passer rating, well above average.
"As a rookie, I was a little shaky at times," running back Corey Dillon said. "It comes with the territory. I see 150 percent improvement in his ability. It's like he's been playing for four or five years."
Teams play simple defenses in the preseason, making it easier for a quarterback to look good. But there was pronounced improvement in Smith, who looked like he knew what he was doing.
"I've made tremendous strides," Smith said. "I'm happy with the way I'm playing right now."
Smith also emerged as a leader, demanding good things out of himself and the rest of the offense. That's a change from the last few years, when quarterbacks came and went without making much of a statement.
"I'm comfortable," he said. "I'm having a great time right now taking on that role. It's a matter of making plays. I've been making them and I'll continue to make them."
He'll have to. There's not enough talent or depth to overcome a quarterback making rookie mistakes.
A defense that has given up 400 points each of the last three seasons, a franchise first, continued to give up big plays in preseason.
The Bengals improved their line depth by signing free agents Vaughn Booker and Tom Barndt and moving linebacker Reinard Wilson back to end, where he played in college. They also brought back safety Darryl Williams to help the beleaguered secondary.
But the Bengals still lacked a pass rush in preseason and their cornerbacks got burned just as often as last year, when they gave up nearly 29 points per game.
Smith will have to avoid three-and-out possessions that keep the defense on the field all afternoon. Given the circumstances, it won't be easy.
When Darnay Scott broke his leg during training camp, the passing game was left in the hands of rookies Peter Warrick and Ron Dugans and second-year player Craig Yeast, who missed much of his rookie season because of injury.
The Bengals can count on a running game as long as Dillon stays healthy. He rushed for 1,000 yards each of his first three seasons and made the Pro Bowl after picking up 1,200 last year, the second-highest total in franchise history.
It all comes back to whether Smith can handle the pressure to play above his experience.
"He learns from his mistakes, which I like about Akili," Coslet said. "And he doesn't let the bigness bother him. He's the guy. He knows he's the guy.
"When you say, 'OK, Akili, you're the man, that (new stadium) is your house,' that doesn't really bother him. That doesn't throw a chill into him, as Paul Brown used to say. He's very confident in his abilities."