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
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
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 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."
Steelers' Newfound Largesse
Cowher Gets A Sweet Deal
There is no prettier setting for a training camp than the Laurel
Highlands in western Pennsylvania, where fans turned out in
droves last weekend to sit on the hillsides of St. Vincent
College and watch their beloved Steelers open camp. This year,
with the team getting ready to move into a new stadium that will
yield increased revenue, the hills are alive with the sound of
cash registers. The Steelers, who often have lost pricey free
agents to teams with deeper pockets, last week tied up two
cornerbacks who would have become free agents after the
season--Dewayne Washington and Chad Scott--with multiyear contracts
totaling $54 million.
However, the biggest eyebrow-raiser among Pittsburgh's spate of
signings involved not a player but a coach. On July 12 owner Dan
Rooney gave Bill Cowher, who had two years left on his contract,
a three-year extension worth an estimated $3 million a year.
Cowher's extension was stunning because of its duration and
dollar amount. Cowher, 44, has presided over three straight
nonplayoff seasons, during which Pittsburgh has gone 22-26.
Why such a huge commitment? "We wanted to show him we love him,"
says Rooney. "I wasn't worried about him going anywhere. He's a
good man, and he'll be our coach for a long time."
At week's end the best free agents looking for work were mostly
defensive players. They include former Bucs defensive end Chidi
Ahanotu, who, at 31, still has a double-digit sack season in him;
linebacker John Holecek, coming off a 110-tackle season in
Buffalo; and cornerback Eric Davis, who had five interceptions in
each of his last five years with Carolina....
Giants quarterback Kerry Collins, a 58.8% passer last year, has
looked at tape of every throw he made in 2000 and knows what he
must do to improve. "Instead of trying to force throws into
narrow spaces downfield, I have to learn when to dump it off,"
The Browns think third-round pick James Jackson can help solve
their problem at running back. Asked recently by team owner Al
Lerner if Jackson would be a star, new coach Butch Davis, who
had Jackson at Miami, replied, "The [idea] that he's the next
Jim Brown is not realistic. The [idea] that he could be the next
Leroy Kelly is." Provided, of course, that the injury-plagued
Jackson can stay healthy....
The Vikings are balking at making Randy Moss the highest-paid
receiver ever and appear prepared to let him play out the final
year of his four-year deal....
The Patriots go to camp confident that they've done more than
any other team to increase their depth. New England signed 17
unrestricted free agents, the most expensive of whom was former
Lions guard Mike Compton ($600,000 signing bonus). With the
league's softest early schedule--the Browns, Bengals, Panthers,
Chargers and Falcons in the first nine weeks--the Patriots could
be this season's Giants, a team that takes advantage of the
schedule to start fast and make the playoffs.