Sunday, April 18, 1999

Why Brown said no to 9-for-1 deal




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Mike Ditka promised the moon. He eclipsed the moon, as a matter of fact. The head coach of the New Orleans Saints was so smitten with Ricky Williams that he was prepared to swap nine draft choices for the privilege of picking him.

        This was the proverbial offer you can't refuse, but Mike Brown turned it down. Turned it down flat. Didn't even bother to counter. The Cincinnati Bengals were so determined to take Oregon quarterback Akili Smith with the third choice in Saturday's draft that they rejected a deal to make your jaw drop.

        Ditka offered all six of New Orleans' selections in the 1999 draft, plus a first-rounder in 2000, a first-rounder in 2001 and a second-rounder in 2002. This was a package, properly handled, that might have turned the Bengals into a power. But Mike Brown does not subscribe to the theory of safety in numbers. He believes instead that the Duck in the hand is worth nine in the bush. Ditka eventually got his man, by way of the Washington Redskins.

        “We had an opportunity to go another way with a trade down,” Brown said. “We elected not to do that, though it was as good an offer as any ever put in front of us. ... It was hard to turn down, but we did.”

        Brown's decision to stand pat Saturday ultimately will be remembered as either his most brilliant move or his most baffling. It is already the boldest.

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        If Akili Smith turns out to be the kind of quarterback the Bengals have lacked for so long, then retaining his rights will be seen as shrewd. But if Smith should fail to lead Team Trauma deep in the playoffs at least once in his career, Brown's decision Saturday may someday make Dan Wilkinson seem an inspired choice.

        “There's a burden on my shoulders to turn the franchise around,” Smith acknowledged. “These guys are real high on me. ... They turned down a lot of picks for the future of the franchise.”

        Odds are, that future is not now. Despite the Bengals' extraordinary endorsement Saturday, Jeff Blake still will open training camp as the starting quarterback. Smith could spend the bulk of his first season carrying a clipboard and poring over his playbook. Given the washout rate of rookie quarterbacks in the NFL, the chance exists Smith will never amount to much.

        Yet in order to resist Ditka's deal, the Bengals had to believe they've located the mother lode. They had to believe Akili Smith has the stuff of a savior: the arm, the poise, the presence. They had to like him enough to endure the first impressions, second guesses and third degree of professional cynics. They turned down the moon, convinced they had found a star.

        “It was easy,” said Jim Lippincott, the Bengals pro/college personnel director. “With Akili Smith, it's easy. ... We went back and put some names (from 1998) with who the choices would be. Some of them didn't even make the team.”

        Lippincott compared New Orleans' 1999 picks to the players selected in the same slots last year. None of those six players started a single game as a rookie. Keith Brooking, a first-round draft choice by the Atlanta Falcons, made 30 tackles on a Super Bowl team. E.G. Green, a third-round draft choice by Indianapolis, caught 15 of Peyton Manning's passes. None of the others made a dime's worth of difference.

        Because Ditka's final offer included three first-round draft choices, what may have been an easy decision mid-week attained a higher degree of difficulty. Had the Bengals known UCLA quarterback Cade McNown still would be available at New Orleans' spot — the 12th pick in the first round — they might have been more inclined to trade down. Had they been more creative, they might have been able to repackage some of Ditka's draft picks and protect themselves from missing out on a first-round quarterback.

        Did Brown blunder? That depends on how well Akili Smith does. If he's another David Klingler, he's a disaster. If he's another Ken Anderson, he's a keeper.

        “There was nobody this year who was a no-brainer like Peyton Manning was last year,” said Anderson, the Bengals' offensive coordinator. “But if you need a quarterback, how else are you going to get one? I think you do it because if you don't take the chance, you may never get one.”

        Presumably, the Bengals could have found a quarterback with one of Ditka's draft choices. They would like to think they have forsaken quantity for quality.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

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