It's Now Or Never
The Bengals have run out of patience with Akili Smith, who's in a fight for his job
Sunday dawned under threatening skies in Georgetown, Ky., and late in the morning, Bengals quarterback Akili Smith ducked into a tent at training camp. He could avoid one storm but not another. How on earth could the Bengals, who paid Smith a $10.8 million signing bonus in August 1999, be thinking of burying him so far down the depth chart? How, at 25, could he be washed up? "It tears me apart," Smith said softly. "I've got to go out there this year, soon, and prove to people I'm not a bust."
In fact, Smith, the third pick in the 1999 draft, may have only one preseason start to prove he can be the No. 1 quarterback for a team that has gone a decade since its last winning season. The Bengals didn't have to see Smith throwing most of his passes too high in drills last Saturday to know he is running out of time. They'd seen enough last season. Smith started the first six games, all losses, and in 89 drives he led Cincinnati to three touchdowns. Here's another troubling statistic: In his first two seasons Smith has completed 47.1% of his passes; of the 34 quarterbacks who have been top 10 draft choices since 1970, only three have had a lower completion percentage in their first two years.
So the Bengals re-signed Scott Mitchell, the Detroit retread, and signed Jon Kitna, not good enough to play for Mike Holmgren in Seattle. Now it's may the best man win. "Do I want him to have a sense of urgency?" coach Dick LeBeau said on Sunday. "Yeah. We have people who want to play as badly as he wants to. He better outperform those people if he expects to start."
It doesn't help that Smith thinks that little of what ails the Bengals is his fault. For instance, ask him what went wrong in 2000, when he won the job after a solid training camp, and he begins by saying, "We were lighting it up in the preseason; then we opened the season with a bye, and that extra time off hurt us."
Smith thinks the Bengals should be more patient, considering he is being asked to run an offense that has inexperienced receivers and a patchwork line. "I wonder, Are they giving up on me already?" he says. "I put myself in the organization's shoes, and I think, We got a new stadium. We've got to fill it. Fans are unhappy. Coach LeBeau needs to win now. Everyone's uptight. So I feel the pressure to produce."
Ready for Their Close-up
In the off-season Ravens coach Brian Billick chatted up Yankees manager Joe Torre about the pitfalls a team encounters trying to stay on top. He read about the motivational methods of Lakers coach Phil Jackson. Billick knows the Ravens face a huge challenge in trying to repeat as Super Bowl champs. Over the past five seasons, 16 teams have filled the 20 slots in conference title games; no other five-year period since the 1970 merger had yielded more than 14 teams in those games. Moreover, the last four teams to make the Super Bowl—the Rams, Titans, Ravens and Giants—were coming off losing or nonwinning seasons, and it's clear that when Billick greets his players at camp, he can say they are underdogs.
Billick, who likes to play mind games, admits that he'll "play the respect card, big time," telling his players they're still not regarded the way Super Bowl champions should be. He'll also hit another note—love of the game. "The more I looked into this," says Billick, "the more I realized you have to appeal to why coaches and players are doing this, which is something I talked with Joe about. I'm going to stress this: 'You've got the ring. You've got the money. Now, let's remember why we do this. We've loved this game since we were kids. Go out and play like that.' "
Billick also has inserted an X factor into training camp. He agreed to let NFL Films into the dorms, practice fields and meeting rooms of his team's Western Maryland College camp to film a I six-hour documentary for HBO on the life of a championship team. It will air in one-hour segments beginning on Aug. 1. Billick thinks the presence of the cameras is an opportunity, not a distraction, though he admits he might think otherwise in a month. "The HBO thing was heaven-sent," Billick says. "We can't hide from the fact that we won the Super Bowl, so let's use this to get used to the scrutiny we'll face this year—and to let our players show the world who they are and what they're like."